Radiotherapy treatment

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

When you have it

You have radiotherapy from a machine that directs the radiation at the area of cancer. You might have it on its own or after surgery. 

Radiotherapy on its own

You might have radiotherapy on its own (as your main treatment) for the following reasons:

  • your cancer is in a position that makes it too difficult to remove
  • your cancer is too large to remove with an operation
  • you can’t have surgery because of other health problems
  • to control symptoms of advanced cancer, such as pain

The number of treatments you have may vary, depending on your needs. Your doctor will tell you how many treatments you need before you start treatment.

Radiotherapy for advanced salivary gland cancer aims to ease symptoms from the cancer. You usually have treatment every weekday (Monday to Friday), for 4 weeks.

Radiotherapy after surgery

Radiotherapy after surgery lowers the chance of the cancer coming back. You might have it for the following reasons:

  • you have a high grade cancer
  • your cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
  • your cancer is advanced
  • your salivary gland cancer that has come back
  • your surgeon couldn’t completely remove the cancer

You usually have radiotherapy every weekday (Monday to Friday), for 4 to 6 weeks. You should start radiotherapy about 6 weeks after your surgery. 

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

It is important to lie in the same position each time, so the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready. They make sure your mask and mouth piece feels comfortable. They fix it to the radiotherapy couch. This keeps you completely still and in the right position for the treatment. 

During the treatment

You need to lie very still. 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 treatment lasts around 20 minutes.

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. This depends 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. Ask the radiotherapy staff if you are able to get free parking or 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

Most people have some side effects with radiotherapy to the salivary gland and neck area. You might have:

  • a dry mouth
  • tiredness
  • sore and red skin in the treatment area
Last reviewed: 
25 Oct 2019
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