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Radiotherapy for mesothelioma

Men and women discussing mesothelioma

This page tells you about radiotherapy for mesothelioma. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Radiotherapy for mesothelioma

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. It is not usually used for peritoneal mesothelioma. But for mesothelioma in the chest, you may have radiotherapy after surgery, to try to stop the cancer coming back. 

Some patients have tubes placed in their lungs to have their chests drained. Doctors recommend patients to have radiotherapy to these sites, to stop the mesothelioma from growing through the skin. 

Some people have combined treatment using radiotherapy and chemotherapy. This is to try to slow the cancer down and keep it under control. Radiotherapy can be effective at controlling pain and fluid collection in the lungs.

You have radiotherapy in the hospital radiotherapy department. Treatments are usually once a day, Monday to Friday, with a rest over the weekend. Each treatment only takes a few minutes. You have to lie very still during each treatment. Radiotherapy does not make you radioactive and does not hurt.

Side effects

The most common side effects of radiotherapy for mesothelioma are tiredness, reddening of the skin in the treated area, and loss of hair in the treatment area. Other side effects of radiotherapy vary depending on where in the body is being treated. 

If your lower chest is being treated, you may feel sick or have diarrhoea. These side effects are usually controllable with anti sickness or anti diarrhoea medicines. Ask your radiotherapy nurse for these if you need them. 

If your upper chest is being treated, it is quite common to develop a dry sore throat and to have difficulty in swallowing during the treatment.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating mesothelioma section.

 

 

What radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. It is not usually used for peritoneal mesothelioma because it causes too many side effects. But you may have a course of intensity modulated radiotherapy treatments after surgery for early mesothelioma in the chest (pleural mesothelioma), to try to stop the cancer coming back. 

In advanced pleural mesothelioma, where surgery is not possible, some people may have radiotherapy. This is to try to slow the cancer down and keep it under control. Radiotherapy may also be used to try to control symptoms in advanced pleural mesothelioma. It can help to control pain.

Some people have a few radiotherapy treatments to the area where they have had biopsies through the skin or fluid drained from their chest. This aims to stop the mesothelioma cells growing in the scar tissue. A few small studies have shown that radiotherapy used in this way prevents the mesothelioma cells from growing. We need more research to confirm how helpful radiotherapy is in this situation.

 

Where radiotherapy is given

The radiotherapy treatment is given in the hospital radiotherapy department. You usually have treatment once a day from Monday to Friday with a rest over the weekend. The length of the treatment will depend on the area you are having treated.

 

Planning your 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 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.

 

Having radiotherapy

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.

You can't feel radiotherapy when you actually have the treatment. It takes anything from 10 to 20 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 the treatment. They 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.

External radiotherapy doesn't make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, throughout your course of treatment.

 

Side effects

You are unlikely to get side effects if you are having radiotherapy to your scar or to control symptoms.

If you are having a few weeks of radiotherapy treatment after surgery for early mesothelioma the most common side effects are

  • Reddening of the skin in the treatment area
  • Loss of hair in the treatment area

The most common reaction is like a mild sunburn, with redness and irritation. Having radiotherapy with, or soon after, chemotherapy may make the skin reaction worse. To help stop your skin getting sore you need to wash the treatment area with plain water only. Don't use perfumed soap or washing products unless you have discussed this with your cancer specialist, radiotherapy nurse, or radiographer.

If your skin is getting sore, tell your radiographers so they can keep an eye on it. People have different reactions to radiotherapy. Your radiographers can take steps to lessen your soreness and discomfort if they know there is a problem.

Other side effects of radiotherapy vary depending on which part of your chest is being treated. If your lower chest is treated, you may feel sick or have diarrhoea. These side effects are usually controllable with anti sickness or anti diarrhoea medicines. Ask your radiotherapy doctor for these if you need them.

If your upper chest is being treated, it is quite common to develop a dry sore throat and to have difficulty in swallowing during the treatment. If this happens, you may find it difficult to eat, or to swallow certain liquids. If you are worried about eating and drinking, you can ask your doctor or specialist nurse to refer you to a dietician.

While you are having radiotherapy, your radiographer or a physiotherapist may ask you to do particular exercises. The exercises can help to prevent stiffness and aching in the chest and shoulder, which some people develop after the treatment ends.

Side effects can get worse towards the end of your treatment and then gradually clear up after it has finished.

 

More about radiotherapy

Find out about

General radiotherapy

What mesothelioma is

Radiotherapy skin markings

Skin care during radiotherapy

Radiotherapy side effects to the chest

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Updated: 24 November 2015