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About nasopharyngeal cancer radiotherapy

Men and women discussing nasopharyngeal cancer

This page tells you about radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancers. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

About radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer

Radiotherapy is the main type of treatment for nasopharyngeal cancers. It uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You usually have radiotherapy on its own or with chemotherapy. The most common type of radiotherapy is external beam radiotherapy. Sometimes doctors use internal radiotherapy to treat nasopharyngeal cancer that has come back.

Radiotherapy alone

Radiotherapy alone can cure most people with early stage nasopharyngeal cancers (stage 1 and stage 2). Whether this treatment is suitable for you will depend on the size of your cancer, exactly where it is and how far it has grown into the surrounding tissues.

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy or biological therapy

Having radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time is called chemoradiation. This is now regarded as standard treatment for stage 3 or 4 nasopharyngeal cancer and some stage 2 cancers. But chemoradiation is an intensive treatment and not everyone is fit enough to cope with the side effects. Doctors sometimes combine radiotherapy with biological therapy. The biological therapy can help the radiotherapy to shrink and control some squamous cell cancers. 

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms

Radiotherapy can relieve symptoms in advanced cancers of the nasopharynx. It does this by shrinking the cancer. The cancer may grow back, but it could take a while to do so. The radiotherapy may sometimes be combined with chemotherapy or a biological therapy.
 

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

 

 

What radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy is the main type of treatment for nasopharyngeal cancers. It uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You can't feel it at all while you are having treatment. It is like having an X-ray. But a course of radiotherapy lasts a few weeks and does usually have some side effects.

 

Radiotherapy to treat nasopharyngeal cancers

For nasopharyngeal cancers, you may have

There are different ways of having radiotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancers. The most commonly used is external beam radiotherapy. Occasionally doctors use internal radiotherapy to treat nasopharyngeal cancer that has come back.

Radiotherapy alone

Radiotherapy alone may be the first choice of treatment for some types of nasopharyngeal cancer. It can cure most people with early stage cancers (stage 1 and stage 2). Whether this type of treatment is suitable for you will depend on

  • The size of the cancer
  • How far it has grown into the surrounding tissues
  • Exactly where the cancer is

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy (chemoradiation)

You may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time (called chemoradiation or synchronous treatment). Results from clinical trials show that chemoradiation works better than radiotherapy alone for people with stage 3 and 4 nasopharyngeal cancer and for some people with stage 2. So it is now regarded as standard treatment for people whose cancer is not an early cancer.

But chemoradiation is an intensive treatment and not everyone is fit enough to cope with the side effects. You will need to have some tests to find out whether or not your general health is good enough to handle a full course of chemoradiation treatment. There is more about chemoradiation and its side effects in the chemotherapy for nasopharyngeal cancer section.

Radiotherapy with biological therapy

For squamous cell stage 3 or 4 cancer you may have radiotherapy and biological therapy at the same time. You may have this combination if you are unable to have chemotherapy (such as cisplatin or carboplatin) for any reason. Results from clinical trials show that biological therapy can help to shrink a cancer or control it for longer than radiotherapy alone for some people. We have information about biological therapy for nasopharyngeal cancer.

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms

Radiotherapy can relieve symptoms in advanced cancers of the nasopharynx. You may hear this called palliative radiotherapy. Your cancer may be causing difficulty in swallowing or breathing or causing pain in your bones. Radiotherapy treatment may relieve symptoms by shrinking the cancer. The cancer may grow back, but it could take a while to do so.

Radiotherapy could relieve your symptoms for some time, but no one can say for how long. You usually have radiotherapy to control symptoms as a short course of treatment over a few days.

 

General information about radiotherapy

If you would like more general information about radiotherapy, look at the main radiotherapy section, where there are sections on

There are books and booklets about radiotherapy, some of which are free. Look at our nasopharyngeal cancer reading list. There is also a list of nasopharyngeal cancer support organisations.

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Updated: 22 January 2013