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Radiotherapy treatment

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

Why you might have radiotherapy for myeloma

Myeloma can damage areas of bone. This can weaken the bones, and cause pain. Sometimes this makes the bone break (fracture).

Radiotherapy aims to kill cancer cells in the bone. This can help to reduce pain and slow down the bone damage. This includes the bones of the spine. These bones protect the spine. Damage to the spinal bones can press on your spinal cord and cause pain and other changes.

Spinal cord compression is an emergency. Contact your doctor straight away if you have any symptoms of spinal cord compression.

Sometimes you need to have surgery to keep the bone stable before you can have radiotherapy. This means having an operation. The surgeon puts a metal pin into the bone to strengthen it and hold it together. They do this if there is a strong risk of the bone breaking before radiotherapy has had time to work. 

More rarely, you might have radiotherapy as part of a stem cell transplant. In this case you have radiotherapy to your whole body. This is called total body irradiation (TBI).

Planning your treatment

The radiotherapy team plan your radiotherapy before you start treatment. This means working out the dose of radiotherapy you need and exactly where you need it.

Your planning appointment takes 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.

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 Open a glossary item 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

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.

Side effects

The most common side effects of radiotherapy during and just after treatment are:

  • reddening of the skin in the treatment area
  • tiredness
  • loss of hair in the treatment area

Radiotherapy for total body irradiation (TBI)

Rarely, you might have total body irridation (TBI) before an allogeneic stem cell transplant. You have radiotherapy twice a day for 3 or 4 days, or as a single treatment.

The radiographers help you to lie or stand in the correct position. Then you have treatment for 10 to 15 minutes on both sides of your body.

Total body irradiation is part of having intensive treatment for myeloma. So the side effects of this type of radiotherapy are likely to be more severe.

Common side effects include:

  • sickness
  • tiredness
  • diarrhoea
  • low blood cell levels
  • complete head and body hair loss
Call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 if you have questions about radiotherapy for myeloma. Lines are open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
30 Apr 2020
Next review due: 
30 Apr 2023
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