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Having radiotherapy treatment

Find out what happens when you have external radiotherapy for advanced bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma).

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells.

You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You usually have it Monday to Friday.  The treatment can last from 1 to 5 weeks.

You need to travel to the hospital each time you have treatment. Some hospitals have rooms nearby where you can stay.

You go to the radiotherapy department from your ward if you are staying in hospital.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big. They rotate around you to give you your treatment. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before you start your course of treatment your therapy radiographers explain what you will see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in your music player. So you can listen to your own music.

Photo of a linear accelerator

Before each treatment session

The radiographers help you to get onto the treatment couch. You might need to raise your arms over your head.

The radiographers line up the radiotherapy machine using the marks on your body. Once you are in the right position, they leave the room.

During the treatment

You need to lie very still on your back. Your radiographers might take images (x-rays or scans) before your treatment to make sure that you're in the right position. The machine makes whirring and beeping sounds. You won’t feel anything when you have the treatment.

Your radiographers can see and hear you on a CCTV screen in the next room. They can talk to you over an intercom and might ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths at times. You can also talk to them through the intercom or raise your hand if you need to stop or if you're uncomfortable.

You won't be radioactive

This type of radiotherapy won't make you radioactive. It's safe to be around other people, including pregnant women and children.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

Tell the radiotherapy department if you prefer treatment at a particular time of day. They can try to arrange this.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. It’s worth asking the radiotherapy unit staff:

  • if they can give you a hospital parking permit
  • about discounted parking rates
  • where you can get help with travel fares
  • for tips on free places to park nearby

If you have no other way to get to the hospital, the radiotherapy staff might be able to arrange hospital transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. To see if you're eligible they usually work it out based on your earnings or income.

Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.

Radiotherapy side effects

Radiotherapy can cause side effects, including:

  • tiredness
  • diarrhoea
  • feeling and being sick
  • skin changes

Combining chemotherapy and radiotherapy

Occasionally doctors might suggest having chemotherapy and radiotherapy together to try and shrink the cancer. They call this chemoradiotherapy.

Chemoradiotherapy is not standard treatment for advanced bile duct cancer. We need more research to know how well it works.

It can cause more severe side effects than chemotherapy or radiotherapy on their own and can make some people feel very ill.

Last reviewed: 
28 Feb 2018
  • Guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of cholangiocarcinoma: an update
    SA Khan and others 
    Gut, 2012. Volume 61, Pages 1657-1669

  • Biliary cancer: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    JW Valle and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2016. Volume 27, Pages 28-37

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT De Vita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

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