Having external radiotherapy for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

External radiotherapy uses a machine outside the body to direct radiation beams at the cancer. It uses high energy rays similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells. You usually have a type of external radiotherapy called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer. 

You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You usually have it Monday to Friday. And have a break at the weekend. The treatment can be over 4 to 7 weeks. This depends on the:

  • size of your cancer
  • type of cancer
  • hospital treating you

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.

When you have it

You may have external radiotherapy:

  • on its own
  • after surgery
  • with chemotherapy
  • to control symptoms

Radiotherapy after surgery is called adjuvant therapy. It helps to stop your cancer coming back. You may have it because:

  • your tumour was difficult to remove
  • your surgeon thinks there may be cancer cells left behind
  • the tumour had spread locally into nearby structures
  • your doctor found cancer cells in your lymph nodes

You might have radiotherapy and chemotherapy together if your cancer has spread beyond where it first started. This is called chemoradiotherapy. Rarely, you might have chemoradiotherapy for very small mouth cancers.

Radiotherapy can help relieve symptoms in advanced cancer. You may hear this called palliative radiotherapy. The treatment relieves symptoms by shrinking the cancer. 

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 of treatment

Radiotherapy for mouth or oropharyngeal cancer can give you:

  • red or sore skin around the area 
  • dry and sore mouth 
  • taste and smell changes 
  • voice changes 
  • nausea (feeling sick) 

This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.

Last reviewed: 
08 Jun 2018
  • Head and Neck Cancer: Multidisciplinary Management Guidelines (4th Edition)

    British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists, 2011

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