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About radiotherapy for symptoms

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page has information about radiotherapy for cancer symptoms (palliative radiotherapy). You can find information about


What palliative radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to treat cancer. Palliative treatment means treatment to shrink a cancer, slow down its growth, or control symptoms. It does not aim to cure the cancer. Doctors use palliative radiotherapy to help shrink an advanced cancer. Or they can use it to control symptoms of a cancer that has spread to give a better quality of life.

Depending on the type of cancer you have, and where it has spread to, you may have internal radiotherapy or external radiotherapy.

External beam radiotherapy works very well for treating cancer cells in one area of the body or several distinct areas. This type of radiotherapy uses strong X-rays, which only treat the area of the body they are aimed at. You can have external radiotherapy to more than one area at the same time.

There are several different types of internal radiotherapy treatment. You may have a small injection of a radioactive substance to treat widespread cancer in the bones. Or you may have a radioactive metal implant put inside your body, very close to the cancer. This can shrink a cancer that is causing a blockage, for example in the food pipe (oesophagus).


When palliative radiotherapy is used

Palliative radiotherapy is used for various reasons including to

The links above take you to other pages in this section. 

Palliative radiotherapy is not suitable for all types of cancer. It depends on the particular type you have. Not all cancers respond well to radiotherapy. So other treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy or biological therapy may be more help. 

You will need to talk to your own specialist to find out the best choice of treatment in your case. But you can also look at the section about your cancer type, which will tell you the main types of treatment used.


How you have palliative radiotherapy

You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. If you have external beam radiotherapy treatment, you may just have 1 or 2 treatments or up to 10 short treatments given over 2 weeks. This depends on the type of cancer and the reason for the treatment. To control symptoms, you are most likely to have a short course of a few treatments over a few days.

Some types of internal palliative radiotherapy are given as a radioactive capsule or drink in the radiotherapy department. You will then usually be allowed to go home. The staff in the radiotherapy department will tell you if you need to follow any safety precautions. You may need to avoid being close to children or pregnant women for a few days after the treatment. If you have treatment with radioactive wires or an implant you may need to stay in hospital for a few days while the implant is in place.


Having your treatment

Radiotherapy is not painful at the time you have it, but it may cause discomfort later, if you have side effects. If you have external beam radiotherapy, you may find it uncomfortable to lie in position during the treatment. The radiotherapy couch can be quite hard. The treatment only takes a few minutes each time. You can ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you can take a painkiller half an hour beforehand if you think it might help. See the section below about finding out more about radiotherapy for more information about palliative radiotherapy treatment.


Side effects of palliative radiotherapy

Palliative radiotherapy aims to make you feel better. So your cancer specialist will try to choose treatments that have as few side effects as possible. Most people have few side effects but you may

  • Have some damage to normal cells around the cancer
  • Feel increasingly tired as your treatment goes on and for a few days or weeks afterwards
  • Feel sick if you have radiotherapy to the stomach, tummy (abdomen) or brain
  • Have soreness when you swallow after radiotherapy to the lung or to the head and neck area

To help control sickness, your doctor can give you anti sickness medicines (anti emetics). You may find that taking an anti sickness tablet an hour before your treatment helps.

There is information about the side effects of radiotherapy in this section.


Finding out more about radiotherapy

Look at the main radiotherapy section. It gives detailed information about this type of treatment including

If you would like more information about anything to do with palliative radiotherapy, contact our cancer information nurses. They will be happy to help.

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Updated: 3 July 2012