Planning radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer
Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells.
The radiotherapy team need to plan your radiotherapy before you start treatment. This means working out the dose of radiotherapy you need and exactly where you need it.
You have your planning appointment in the hospital radiotherapy department. This can take from 15 minutes to 2 hours.
You usually have a planning CT scan in the radiotherapy department.
The scan shows the cancer and the area around it. You might have other types of scans or x-rays to help your treatment team plan your radiotherapy. The plan they create is just for you.
Your radiographers tell you what is going to happen. They help you into position on the scan couch. You might have a type of firm cushion called a vacbag to help you keep still.
The CT scanner couch is the same type of bed that you lie on for your treatment sessions. You need to lie very still. Tell your radiographers if you aren't comfortable.
Injection of dye
You might need an injection of contrast into a vein in your hand. This is a dye that helps body tissues show up more clearly on the scan.
Before you have the contrast, your radiographer asks you about any medical conditions or allergies. Some people are allergic to the contrast.
Having the scan
Once you are in position your radiographers put some markers on your skin. They move the couch up and through the scanner. They then leave the room and the scan starts.
The scan takes about 5 minutes. You won't feel anything. Your radiographers can see and hear you from the CT control area where they operate the scanner.
Your treatment team can put all the scans together in a special computer to decide your radiotherapy plan.
Ink and tattoo marks
The radiographers make pin point sized tattoo marks on your skin. They use these marks to line you up into the same position every day. The tattoos make sure they treat exactly the same area for all of your treatments. They may also draw marks around the tattoos with a permanent ink pen, so that they are clear to see when the lights are low.
The radiotherapy staff tell you how to look after the markings. The pen marks might start to rub off in time, but the tattoos won’t. Tell your radiographer if that happens. Don't try to redraw them yourself.
Head mask for radiotherapy to the brain
You will have a head mask (or mould) made if you’re having radiotherapy to the brain. This keeps your head still during your planning CT scan and while you have treatment.
You have this made before you start your treatment.
Radiotherapy mask (mould)
Your radiographer or technician makes your mask in the radiotherapy department. They might call the mask a radiotherapy shell.
The mask covers your face, and the top and sides of your head. It attaches to the couch when you are lying down for the planning scan or radiotherapy treatment.
The process of making the mask can vary slightly between hospitals. It usually takes around 30 minutes.
Before making the mask
You need to wear clothes that you can easily take off from your neck and chest. You also need to take off any jewellery from that area.
Facial hair, long hair or dreadlocks can make it difficult to mould the mask. Your radiotherapy team will tell you if you need to shave or tie your hair back.
Making the mask
The technician uses a special kind of plastic that they heat in warm water. This makes it soft and pliable. They put the plastic on to your face so that it moulds exactly. It feels a little like a warm flannel and is a mesh with holes in so you can breathe.
After a few minutes the mesh gets hard. The technician takes the mask off and it cools down. You might need to have one more fitting to make sure it is exactly right.
You wear the mask for your planning CT scan. Your radiotherapy team keep the mask in the department for when you go back for treatment. You wear it for each treatment session.
Voiceover: Making a mesh mask for radiotherapy takes a few minutes.
Radiographer: I am just going to heat this up now if you just keep nice and still there and just want to close your eyes for us.
Voiceover: The radiographer softens the mask by putting it in warm water for a minute or two. When the radiographer puts the mask on to your face it will feel warm and damp. They then clip it to the bed that you are lying on. It takes a minute or two to dry into the shape of your face. The radiographers will mark the mask where the light lines are.
Radiographer: Okay, you are just going to feel us pressing down on the mask there; you are doing really well are you still okay?
Voiceover: They use the marks on the mask to line up the machine each time you have treatment. The mask keeps you head still and makes sure that your treatment is directed at the cancer. They put your name on the mask and keep it in the radiotherapy department ready for your treatment.
Patient: They um told me about the procedure, a mask being fitted, uumm that it would be moulded to the shape of my face. Umm which they did, three lovely girls umm put my mind at ease, sat me down, heated the mask, moulded it around my face, um not an uncomfortable thing at all to go through.
After your planning session
You might have to wait a few days or up to 3 weeks before you start treatment.
During this time the physicists and your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) decide the final details of your radiotherapy plan. They make sure that the area of the cancer will receive a high dose and nearby areas receive a low dose. This reduces the side effects you might get during and after treatment.