About radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer | Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter

About radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Men and women discussing salivary gland cancer

This page tells you about radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer. There is information about


A quick guide to what’s on this page

About radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. For salivary gland cancer you may have radiotherapy on its own or combined with surgery. You have the treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You usually go for treatment each week day for between 4 and 6½ weeks.

Radiotherapy masks

For radiotherapy to the face and neck, you usually need to wear a treatment mask. This keeps your head and neck very still. It fits over all or part of your face and neck. You have your mask made during your first planning appointment. It should feel comfortable and secure when you wear it.

Planning your treatment

You may need to have a CT scan and other scans as part of your radiotherapy planning. During your planning appointment, you have a planning CT scan. Your treatment team use the machine to work out exactly where to give the treatment.

Having radiotherapy

Each treatment may take up to 15 minutes. You are left alone in the room while the machine is switched on. The treatment itself does not hurt – you won't be able to feel it at all. Having external radiotherapy does not make you radioactive.


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



Radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. You may have radiotherapy on its own or in combination with surgery.

You have radiotherapy after surgery if your cancer was a high grade cancer or it had spread to the lymph nodes. The radiotherapy lowers the chance of the cancer coming back.

You may have radiotherapy as your main treatment for the following reasons

  • Your cancer is in a position that makes it too difficult to remove
  • Your cancer is too large to remove with an operation
  • You can’t have surgery because of other health problems
  • To control symptoms of advanced cancer, such as pain

For salivary gland cancer, you have radiotherapy from a machine that directs the radiation at the area of cancer. If you are having treatment after surgery you usually have the radiotherapy daily, from Monday to Friday, for 4 to 6½ weeks.

If you are having radiotherapy on its own, the number of treatments you have may vary, depending on your needs. Your doctor tells you how many treatments you need before you start treatment.

If you have an advanced cancer and are having radiotherapy to ease symptoms from the tumour, the treatment is usually for 4 weeks.


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 have a planning CT scan. The scan shows the cancer and the structures around it.

CT scanner

You lie on the scanner couch. The radiographers 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 an MRI scan. Your treatment team can feed the other scans into the planning scanner.


Radiotherapy masks

During your planning session you usually need to have a treatment mask made. This is also called a mould or shell. It helps to keep your head still during treatment. It also makes sure the radiation is going to the exact area that needs treating. 

The mask fits over all or part of your face and neck. The radiographer attaches it to the radiotherapy couch each time you have treatment.

The radiographer makes your mask individually for you. The staff explain beforehand what is going to happen. Having the mask made won't hurt. But it may feel a bit strange to have someone working so near to your face. 

Plastic mesh mask

Making a plastic mesh mask usually takes around 30 minutes. The technician uses a special kind of plastic that becomes soft and bendy when heated in warm water. They put the softened sheet of mesh over your face and mould it to fit exactly. It feels a little like having a warm flannel on your face. You can still breathe easily because the plastic is full of holes.

Once the mesh has moulded and become hard (which takes a few minutes) the technician takes it off. The mask is then ready to be used when you have your treatment.

The photo shows the plastic mesh mask ready to be used

Plastic mesh radiotherapy mask

You may also have a dental impression made with gel. The technician puts the gel into your mouth and takes an impression of your teeth. This takes between 5 and 10 minutes. The technician also makes an impression of your lower jaw and neck. The whole visit takes about 30 minutes.


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 explain what you 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 is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready. They make sure your mask feels comfortable. They fix it to the radiotherapy couch. This keeps you completely still and in the right position for the treatment. 

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 up to 15 minutes. They watch you carefully on a closed circuit television screen.

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

The video here shows how you have radiotherapy for head and neck cancer:

View a transcript of the video showing radiotherapy for head and neck cancer. The transcript opens in a new window.


More information about radiotherapy

Find out about

External radiotherapy

Side effects of radiotherapy for salivary gland cancer

Grades of salivary gland cancer

Radiotherapy moulds and masks

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

Rate this page:
Submit rating


Rated 5 out of 5 based on 1 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 1 October 2014