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External radiotherapy for advanced cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells. It can shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms, and help you feel more comfortable.

External beam radiotherapy directs radiotherapy beams at the cancer from a machine. This is different to internal radiotherapy which means giving radiotherapy to the cancer from inside the body.

This page is about external beam radiotherapy.

Where do you have it?

You have external radiotherapy in a hospital radiotherapy department. You usually have it as an outpatient. 

For advanced cancer, you might have one treatment a day for a few days, or you may have a few treatments with a few days break between each.

Some hospitals have rooms near the hospital you can stay in if you have a long way to travel.

You go to the radiotherapy department from your ward if you’re already in hospital.

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

Before treatment

The radiographers help you to get into position on the treatment couch.

They line up the radiotherapy machine, using marks on your skin.

You might need to raise your arms above your head.

Then the radiographers leave you alone in the room for a few minutes.

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

Radiotherapy to the oesophagus can make you tired and make your mouth and throat sore. You may also have difficulty eating.

Last reviewed: 
18 Oct 2019
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  • Oesophago-gastric cancer: assessment and management in adults  [NG83]
    National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
    Published January 2018

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    N Rashid and others
    British Journal of Medical practicioners 2015 Volume 8, Issue 1, page 804

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    F. Lordick and others
    Ann Oncol. 2016 27 Suppl 6: v50-v57

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