Radiotherapy treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer

Radiotherapy is the main type of treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer. It uses radiation, such as x-rays, to kill cancer cells.

You can't feel it at all while you are having treatment. A course of radiotherapy lasts a few weeks. It causes side effects such as:

  • sore skin
  • sore mouth and throat
  • dry mouth
  • tiredness

How do you have radiotherapy?

You might have radiotherapy on its own or with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy) to treat nasopharyngeal cancer.

The type of radiotherapy you have is external beam radiotherapy. This means a specialised radiotherapy machine aims radiation beams at the cancer from outside the body.

Radiotherapy on its own

Radiotherapy on its own is often the first choice of treatment for stage 1 and some stage 2 nasopharyngeal cancers. It can cure most people with early stage cancer.

Whether this type of treatment is suitable for you depends on: 

  • the size of the cancer
  • how far it has grown into the surrounding tissues
  • exactly where the cancer is

Radiotherapy with chemotherapy (chemoradiotherapy)

You might have radiotherapy and chemotherapy at the same time. This is called chemoradiotherapy.

Why you have it

Chemoradiotherapy works better than radiotherapy alone for people with stage 3 and 4 nasopharyngeal cancer, and for some people with stage 2. The chemotherapy makes the cancer cells more sensitive to the radiotherapy.

Side effects

Chemoradiotherapy is an intensive treatment and unfortunately not everyone is fit enough to cope with the side effects. You have some tests to see whether your general health is good enough to be able to manage a full course of treatment.

Radiotherapy to relieve symptoms (palliative radiotherapy)

Radiotherapy can relieve symptoms in people with nasopharyngeal cancer that has spread to another part of the body (advanced cancer). This is called palliative radiotherapy. You usually have it as a short course of treatment over a few days.

Your cancer may cause difficulty in swallowing or breathing, or pain in your bones. Radiotherapy may relieve these symptoms by shrinking the cancer. The cancer may grow back, but it could take a while to do so.

Last reviewed: 
16 Feb 2021
Next review due: 
16 Feb 2024
  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: ESMO-EURACAN Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    P Bossi and others
    Annals of Oncology, 2021. Volume 32, Issue 4, Pages 452-465

  • Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines
    R Simo and others
    The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016. Volume 130, Supplement 2, Pages 97-103

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Walters Kluwer, 2019

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