Radiotherapy for bile duct cancer | Cancer Research UK
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A quick guide to what’s on this page

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You may have radiotherapy to try to lower the risk of bile duct cancer coming back after surgery. Or you may have radiotherapy to relieve symptoms. Radiotherapy on its own is very unlikely to cure your cancer but it may help to shrink the cancer or slow its growth.

If you are having radiotherapy after surgery you may have it with chemotherapy. Researchers are looking into whether radiotherapy may lower the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery. But at the moment there is not enough evidence to say that it does.

You have radiotherapy from a machine. This is called external radiotherapy. External radiotherapy is similar to having an X-ray. The main side effects of radiotherapy to the bile ducts include

  • Feeling or being sick
  • Diarrhoea
  • Reddening of the skin in the treatment area
  • Loss of body hair in the treatment area

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating bile duct cancer section.



What radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You can't feel radiotherapy when you have it. But a course of radiotherapy treatment over a few weeks will have some side effects.


Radiotherapy and bile duct cancer

You may have radiotherapy to

  • Lower the risk of your cancer coming back after surgery
  • Relieve symptoms

Lowering the risk of cancer coming back

If your surgeon thinks that cancer cells may be left behind after surgery to remove bile duct cancer, they may suggest you have radiotherapy along with chemotherapy. This is chemoradiotherapy and aims to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.

Doctors are not completely sure how much this treatment helps. We know from research that it may help to lower the risk of distal bile duct cancers coming back after surgery. Distal bile duct cancers are those that start in the bile duct near the bowel. We need results from more clinical trials before we know how useful chemoradiotherapy is.

Relieving symptoms

If you have had bypass surgery your doctor may suggest that you have radiotherapy to help relieve symptoms. They may also suggest radiotherapy if you can’t have surgery for any reason. In this situation, radiotherapy on its own is very unlikely to cure your cancer. But radiotherapy can help to shrink the cancer or slow its growth in some people. It can also help to control symptoms such as pain.


How you have radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy from an external machine. External radiotherapy is similar to having an X-ray. You have treatment for a few minutes each day, usually from Monday to Friday for a few weeks. The number of treatments you need depends on the type and position of your cancer.


Where you have treatment

You have external radiotherapy in the radiotherapy department at the hospital. You have it daily, usually as an outpatient.


Planning radiotherapy treatment

Before you begin your treatment, the radiotherapy team carefully plan your external beam radiotherapy. This means working out how much radiation you need to treat the cancer and exactly where you need it. 

Your planning appointment may take from 15 minutes up to a couple of hours. You will have a planning CT scan. The scan shows the cancer and the structures around it.

CT scanner

You lie on the scanner couch with the treatment area exposed. The radiographers will put some markers on your skin. You need to lie very still. Once you are in position the radiographers will move the couch up and through the scanner. The scanner is a doughnut shape. 

The radiographers leave the room and the scan starts. It takes up to 5 minutes. You won't feel anything. The radiographers watch from the next door room.

Before the planning appointment you may also have other scans, such as MRI scans or PET scans. Your treatment team can feed the other scans into the planning scanner.

Ink marks

Once the treatment team has planned your radiotherapy, they may put ink marks on your skin to make sure they treat exactly the same area every day. They may also make pin point sized tattoo marks in these areas.

After your planning session

You may have to wait a few days or up to 2 weeks before you start treatment. During this time the physicists and your radiotherapy doctor decide the final details of your plan. 

Your doctor will plan the areas that need treatment and outline areas to limit the dose to or avoid completely. They call this contouring. Then the physicists and staff, called dosimetrists, plan the treatment very precisely using advanced computers.

Radiotherapy machines are very big. The machine may be fixed in one position or able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. Before your first treatment your radiographers will explain what you will see and hear. The treatment rooms usually have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music while you have treatment.

You can't feel radiotherapy when you actually have the treatment. It takes anything from 1 minute to several minutes. It is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

Once you are in the right position the staff leave you alone in the room for a few minutes. The radiographers watch you carefully on a closed circuit television screen.

Our page about having external radiotherapy has a video about having radiotherapy that you may want to watch.

Having external radiotherapy does not make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment course.


Side effects of radiotherapy

You are likely to have some side effects from radiotherapy for bile duct cancer. The most common effects include;

  • Feeling or being sick
  • Diarrhoea
  • Reddening of the skin in the treatment area
  • Loss of body hair in the treatment area
  • Fatigue (tiredness)

All these side effects usually disappear within a few weeks of finishing your treatment. You can have medicines to help control sickness and diarrhoea. Do tell your nurse, doctor or radiographer if you have any problems.

Radiotherapy also causes tiredness for many people. The tiredness increases as you go through your treatment, and continues for a few weeks after it ends.


More information about radiotherapy

Find out about

Bile duct cancer treatments

Bypass surgery

Radiotherapy skin markings

Radiotherapy tiredness

Radiotherapy and sickness


Side effects of radiotherapy to the abdomen

Bile duct cancer organisations page

Bile duct cancer reading list

For general information and support (H3)

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Updated: 22 January 2015