External radiotherapy treatment for penile cancer

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

You have external radiotherapy in a hospital radiotherapy department. You usually have it as an outpatient each weekday over 4 to 6 weeks.

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.

When you might have it

Surgery is usually the main treatment for penile cancer. You might have radiotherapy for the following reasons:

  • instead of surgery if you are unable to have, or do not want to have, an operation
  • instead of surgery to lymph nodes in the groin
  • after surgery if there is a risk that cancer cells are left in the groin
  • to treat the lymph nodes in the pelvis if there is a high risk of the cancer coming back

Radiotherapy and chemotherapy together (chemoradiotherapy) have been used in research studies, but further studies are necessary. 

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

Before each treatment session

The radiographers help you to get into position on the treatment couch. You might have wax or plastic box put on to your penis to hold it away from your body during treatment. It helps to make sure that:

  • your penis doesn't move during threatment
  • the correct amount of radiotherapy reaches the target area

They line up the radiotherapy machine. They use the marks on your skin to help, if you have them from your radiotherapy planning. 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.

The following is a video about radiotherapy for cancer in general.

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 to the penis can make you tired. Your penis may become swollen and may become sore.

Last reviewed: 
04 Feb 2021
Next review due: 
04 Feb 2024
  • Penile carcinoma: ESMO clinical practice guidelines

    HN Van Poppel and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2013. Volume 24, Supplement 6

  • Guidelines on Penile Cancer

    O W Hakenberg and others

    European Association of Urology (EAU), 2018

  • Contemporary role of radiotherapy in the management of penile cancer

    M Korzeniowski and J Cook

    Translational Andrology and Urology, 2017. Volume 6, Issue 5

  • Radiotherapy in Practice: External beam Therapy 3rd Edition
    P Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2019


Related links