About radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses radiation, usually x-rays, to destroy cancer cells.

External radiotherapy targets radiation at the cancer from a radiotherapy machine. It is not a common treatment for liver cancer.

You are most likely to have external radiotherapy to help control liver cancer that has spread to other areas of the body such as the bones.

In some cases, you might have a newer type of external radiotherapy called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) to treat tumours in the liver. You might have this if you can't have other treatments such as radiofrequency ablation

SBRT gives radiotherapy from many different positions around the body, with the beams of radiation meeting at the tumour. The tumour receives a high dose of radiation and the tissues around it only receive a low dose. This lowers the risk of side effects.

The radiotherapy room

Radiotherapy machines are very big and could make you feel nervous when you see them for the first time. The machine might be fixed in one position or able to rotate around your body to give treatment from different directions. The machine doesn't touch you at any point.

Before your first treatment, your therapy radiographers Open a glossary item will explain what you will see and hear. In some departments the treatment rooms have docks for you to plug in music players. So you can listen to your own music while you have treatment.

Photo of a linear accelerator

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

You might have to travel a long way each day for your radiotherapy, depending on where your nearest cancer centre is. This can make you very tired, especially if you have side effects from the treatment.

You can ask the therapy radiographers Open a glossary item for an appointment time to suit you. They will do their best, but some departments might be very busy. Some radiotherapy departments are open from 7am till 9pm.

Car parking can be difficult at hospitals. You can ask the radiotherapy staff if they can give you a hospital parking permit for free parking or advice on discounted parking. They may be able to give you tips on free places to park nearby.

The radiotherapy staff may be able to arrange transport if you have no other way to get to the hospital. Your radiotherapy doctor would have to agree. This is because it is only for people that would struggle using public transport and have no access to a car. 

Some people are able to claim back a refund for healthcare travel costs. This is based on the type of appointment and whether you claim certain benefits. Ask the radiotherapy staff for more information about this.

Some hospitals have their own drivers and local charities might offer hospital transport. So do ask if any help is available in your area.

Side effects

Radiotherapy for liver cancer can make you feel tired. This usually increases towards the end of a course of treatment. You may continue to feel more tired than usual for a few days or weeks after you finish treatment.

The liver is very near the stomach and bowel, so radiotherapy to this part of the body can cause sickness or diarrhoea. Your nurse will give you medicines to help.

Last reviewed: 
05 Dec 2018
  • EASL Clinical Practice Guidelines: Management of hepatocellular carcinoma
    European Association for the Study of the Liver
    Journal of Hepatology, 2018. Volume 69, Pages 182-236

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow up
    A Vogel and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2018. Volume 29, Supplement 4, Pages 238-255

  • External Beam Therapy
    Peter Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2012 

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