Radiotherapy means the use of radiation, usually x-rays, to treat cancer cells.
You usually have external radiotherapy after breast surgery. This lowers the risk of the cancer coming back.
You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You usually have it from Monday to Friday or on alternate weekdays. You have a break at the weekend. The treatment is usually over 3 to 5 weeks.
You need to travel to the hospital each time you have treatment. Some hospitals have rooms nearby where you can stay, if you have a long way to travel.
You go to the radiotherapy department from your ward if you are staying in hospital.
The radiotherapy room
Radiotherapy machines are very big. They usually rotate around you to give your treatment. The machine does not touch you at any point.
Before you start your course of treatment your radiographers explain what you'll 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.
Before each treatment session
The radiographers help you to get onto the treatment couch. You lie on a special board called a breast board. If you have had a shell (mould) made the radiographers will fix this in place. You might need to raise your arms over your head.
The radiographers line up the radiotherapy machine using the marks on your body or on the shell. Once you are in the right position, they leave the room.
During the treatment
You need to lie very still. 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. They will ask you to raise your hand if you need anything but it is important to stay as still as possible.
This video show you what happens, it is 1 minute 22 seconds long.
Daniel (radiographer): Before your treatment starts your doctor will need to work out exactly where the treatment needs to go and also which parts need to be avoided by the treatment.
To have radiotherapy you lie in the same position as you did for your planning scans. We then line up the machine based on your tattoo marks.
It’s really important that you stay very very still when you’re having your treatment. It’s also important to let the radiographers know right at the beginning if you’re not comfortable so they can adjust your position.
We leave the room and control the machine from a separate room. This is so we aren’t exposed to radiation.
Treatment takes a few minutes and you’ll be able to talk to us using an intercom. We can see and hear you while you’re having treatment and we will check that you’re OK.
When your treatment starts you won’t feel anything. You may hear the machine as it moves around you giving the treatment from different angles.
Because we’re aiming to give the same treatment to the same part of the body every day the treatment process is exactly the same everyday so you shouldn’t really notice any difference.
You’ll see someone from the team caring for you once a week while you’re having treatment. They’ll ask how you are and ask about any side effects.
You might need to hold your breath at times during the treatment if you have radiotherapy to your left breast. This is to protect your heart from the radiotherapy.
The radiographer talks to you over a speaker. They tell you when to hold your breath. It could last between 2 to 17 seconds. This technique is called deep inspiration breath hold (DIBH).
Sometimes you have a shield placed over the heart to protect it instead.
You won't be radioactive
External radiotherapy does not make you radioactive. It's safe to be with other people throughout your course of treatment, including pregnant women and children.
Travelling to radiotherapy appointments
Tell the radiotherapy department staff 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 transport for you. But it might not always be at convenient times. Some hospitals have their own drivers or can arrange ambulances. Some charities offer hospital transport.
Side effects of treatment
Radiotherapy for breast cancer can make you tired and might cause other side effects.