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About radiotherapy for mouth cancer

Men and women discussing mouth cancer

This page has information about radiotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancers. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

About radiotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy radiation to kill cancer cells.

Radiotherapy alone

Radiotherapy may be the first choice of treatment for some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. It can cure many people with early stage cancers. For some people it is less likely than surgery to cause voice loss or changes in the way you look after the treatment.

Radiotherapy after surgery

Radiotherapy after surgery helps to stop your cancer from coming back. You usually have treatment daily from Monday to Friday, for 4 to 7 weeks.

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy

You may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time for some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. This treatment is called chemoradiation.

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms

Radiotherapy can relieve symptoms in advanced mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. You may hear this called palliative radiotherapy. The treatment relieves symptoms by shrinking the cancer. The cancer may grow back, but it could take a while to do so. Radiotherapy can also help to relieve pain. 

To control symptoms, you are most likely to have a short course of a few radiotherapy treatments over a few days.

 

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

 

 

What radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy uses high energy radiation to kill cancer cells. There are different ways of giving radiotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancers. The main two are

  • External beam radiotherapy
  • Internal radiotherapy

External beam radiotherapy

External radiotherapy is given from a machine similar to an X-ray machine. You can't feel it at all while you are having treatment. It is like having an X-ray. The treatment is broken down into a large number of small treatments because this helps to reduce the side effects. 

You usually have treatment daily from Monday to Friday, from 4 to 7 weeks. So you have up to 35 separate sessions called fractions. If you add up all the radiation doses you have in the fractions they make up the complete dose of radiation your specialist has prescribed. If you have fewer treatments, you have larger doses per treatment. 

A course of radiotherapy that lasts a few weeks has some side effects. In particular, your mouth can get very sore and dry.

Internal radiotherapy

If you have a small tumour you are more likely to have internal radiotherapy, also called brachytherapy. A source of radiation is put inside the body close beside or inside the cancer. The source of radiation is put into place while you are under general anaesthetic, in the operating room.

The treatment can last between 2 to 5 days depending on what your doctor has prescribed you. Throughout your treatment you stay on the ward, in the hospital.

 

Treating mouth and oropharyngeal cancers with radiotherapy

You may have

  • Radiotherapy on its own
  • Radiotherapy after surgery
  • Radiotherapy with chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy to control symptoms

Radiotherapy on its own

Radiotherapy may be the first choice of treatment for some types of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. It can cure many people with early stage cancers. For some people it may be less likely than surgery to cause voice loss, or change the way you look after the treatment. Whether this type of treatment is suitable for you will depend on

  • Which type of mouth or oropharyngeal cancer you have
  • The size of the cancer
  • How far it has grown into the surrounding tissues
  • The exact position of the cancer

Radiotherapy after surgery

Radiotherapy after surgery is called adjuvant therapy. It helps to stop your cancer from coming back. Doctors use radiotherapy after surgery for a number of different reasons. You may have it because

  • The tumour was difficult to remove
  • Your surgeon thinks there may be cancer cells left behind
  • The tumour had spread locally into nearby structures
  • Cancer cells were found in your lymph nodes

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy

You may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy together (chemoradiotherapy) for oropharyngeal cancer that has spread beyond where it first started. It is sometimes used for very small mouth cancers but this is rare.

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms

Radiotherapy can relieve symptoms in advanced mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. You may hear this being called palliative radiotherapy. The treatment relieves symptoms by shrinking the cancer. 

It can help you to swallow more easily if the cancer is causing pressure on the foodpipe. Or it can help if the cancer is pressing on your windpipe and making it difficult for you to breathe. It can also help to shrink a tumour if it is causing pressure on the brain. Radiotherapy helps to relieve pain. 

The cancer may grow back, but it could take a while to do so. No one can say exactly how long, but the radiotherapy could relieve your symptoms for some time. To control symptoms, you are most likely to have a short course of a few treatments over a few days.

 

For more information

Find out about

Radiotherapy

Side effects of mouth cancer radiotherapy

Dealing with voice loss or changes in speech

Changes in how you look

There are books and booklet on our reading list for mouth cancers

For general information and support

Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday)

Share experiences on our online forum with Cancer Chat

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Updated: 14 October 2014