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Radiotherapy treatment

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat 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. 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 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

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 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 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

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

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
  • Management of Salivary Gland Tumours: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines

    S Sood and others

    The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 2016. Vol 130, Supplement S2

  • Principles and practice of oncology (11th edition)
    V DeVita, T Lawrence and S Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2018

  • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)

    J Tobias and D Hochhauser

    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

  • External Beam Therapy
    Peter Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2012

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