Decorative image

External radiotherapy

Usually you have intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) for nasopharyngeal cancer. This directs a precisely targeted dose of radiation to the tumour. See how you have it.

What it is

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to kill cancer cells.

You usually have a type of radiotherapy called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) for nasopharyngeal cancer. IMRT directs a precisely targeted dose of radiation to the area of the tumour from outside the body. 

How you have it

You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department.

You go to the hospital for treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday, with a break at the weekends. The length of the course of treatment varies but it is usually between 4 and 7 weeks.


If you smoke, your doctor will advise you to give up before your treatment. Radiotherapy might not work as well and you may have more side effects if you continue to smoke.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and can be daunting at first. Some are fixed in one position, but others rotate around your body.  

Before you start treatment your radiographers explain what you'll see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

It is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to position you on the couch and attach your mask to the couch. They make sure your mask feels comfortable.

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room.

During the treatment

You need to lie very still. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You can't feel the radiotherapy when you have the treatment. 

Your radiographers watch and listen to you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. Tell them if you need to move or want the machine to stop.

The treatment can take between 15 to 30 minutes.

You won't be radioactive

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It's safe to be with other people throughout your course of treatment.

Having radiotherapy for head and neck cancer

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Tell the radiotherapy department staff if you prefer treatment at a particular time of day. They can try to arrange this.

Radiotherapy can make you tired, especially if you have a long journey. You could ask a family member or friend to drive you to the hospital a couple of times a week. 

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. It’s worth asking the radiotherapy unit staff:

  • if they can give you a hospital parking permit
  • about discounted parking rates
  • where you can get help with travel fares
  • for tips on free places to park nearby

The radiotherapy staff can usually help to arrange transport for you if you need it. Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Side effects

Last reviewed: 
26 Aug 2014
  • External Beam Therapy
    Peter Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2012

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.