External radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer
This page is about external radiotherapy for cancer of the food pipe (oesophagus). Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You can find information about
External radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer
Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells. You may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy together to try to cure the cancer, before surgery or instead of surgery. If you have an advanced cancer, you may have radiotherapy on its own. It can shrink the cancer and so relieve some of the symptoms it is causing.
Most radiotherapy is external treatment. That is, the radiation is aimed at the cancer from outside the body. But you can have internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy). We have separate information about internal radiotherapy for oesophageal cancer.
How you have external radiotherapy
You have external radiotherapy at the hospital radiotherapy department, as an outpatient. The length of your course of treatment depends on whether you are having radiotherapy to try to cure the cancer or to relieve symptoms. Treatment to try to cure the cancer usually lasts for 4 to 6 weeks. But if the radiotherapy is to reduce symptoms, you may have just one or a few treatments.
The actual treatment only lasts a few minutes each day. It doesn’t hurt. And external radiotherapy does not make you radioactive.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating oesophageal cancer section.
Doctors often use radiotherapy to treat cancer of the oesophagus. You may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy together (chemoradiation) to try to cure the cancer, before surgery or instead of surgery. Doctors most often recommend chemoradiation instead of surgery for cancers of the upper third of the oesophagus, particularly squamous cell cancers.
If you have an advanced cancer, you may still have radiotherapy. It can shrink the cancer and so relieve some of the symptoms it is causing.
Most radiotherapy is external treatment. That is, the radiation is aimed at the cancer from outside the body. But you can have internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy). This means the radiotherapy source is put inside the oesophagus. There is information about internal radiotherapy for cancer of the oesophagus in this section.
You have external radiotherapy in the hospital radiotherapy department, usually as an outpatient. The length of your course of treatment depends on whether you are having radiotherapy to try to cure the cancer or to relieve symptoms.
Radiotherapy to try to cure oesophageal cancer is usually a course of treatment over 4 to 6 weeks. Your radiotherapy specialist works out the total dose you need and then that is divided into a number of smaller treatments, called fractions. You have one fraction a day, from Monday to Friday, until you have had the total dose. Doctors give radiotherapy this way to balance the side effects with the effect of the treatment on the cancer.
Radiotherapy for symptoms is often given over a smaller number of treatments (fractions) so that you don't have to keep coming back to the hospital. You may have one treatment a day for a few days or a few treatments with a few days break between each.
Your specialist has to plan your radiotherapy very carefully. They use scans to work out where to give your treatment to kill the most cancer cells and miss as much healthy body tissue as possible. You may lie in a specialised CT scanner to help plan your treatment.
The radiographer makes a pinprick tattoo on your skin and uses it to line up the radiotherapy machine every day when you have your treatment. Sometimes more marks are made with felt pen. If so, you must be careful not to wash them off. If they start to fade, your radiographer will mark them in again.
If the cancer is very high in your oesophagus, you may have a plastic mould (shell) made to keep your head still while you have radiotherapy. We have information about making radiotherapy moulds in the main radiotherapy section.
The actual treatment only takes a few minutes. The radiographer will help position you on the couch and make sure you are comfortable. You will be left alone for the minute or two the machine is switched on. But the staff will be able to hear you through an intercom, so call if you need them. The treatment does not hurt. You will not be able to feel it at all. You must lie very still for the few minutes it takes to treat you.
Having external radiotherapy does not make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment course.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team