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Why you have radiotherapy

Read about what radiotherapy is and why you might have it for soft tissue sarcoma. 

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells. It destroys the cancer cells in the treated area by damaging the DNA within these cells. Although normal cells are also affected by radiation, they are better at repairing themselves than the cancer cells.

You can have radiotherapy in one of the following ways, as:

  • external beam radiotherapy - the radiation is directed from a machine outside of the body
  • internal radiotherapy  - using a radioactive material inside the body

You have external radiotherapy for soft tissue sarcoma.

Why you might have it

Your doctor might recommend you have radiotherapy for one of the following reason:

  • to shrink the cancer before surgery (neoadjuvant radiotherapy)
  • to try to stop sarcoma coming back after surgery (adjuvant radiotherapy)
  • to shrink secondary cancers
  • to slow the growth of advanced sarcoma, and to relieve symptoms

In the UK, radiotherapy is part of standard treatment for:

  • high grade sarcoma 
  • sarcoma larger than 5cm 
  • sarcoma that can't be completely removed with surgery 

Radiotherapy before surgery

You doctor may suggest you have radiotherapy before surgery. It is called neoadjuvant radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy can shrink the sarcoma and make it easier to remove. You may then be able to have a smaller operation. Radiotherapy before surgery may also reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in the future by killing off any cells in the area that have broken away from the main tumour.

Some research into radiotherapy before surgery has shown that it can increase the risk of wound complications after your operation. This is particularly the case for sarcomas in the leg. But it may be the best choice of treatment for sarcomas in some parts of the body. 

The dose of radiotherapy you have before surgery is smaller than when you have it after surgery.

Radiotherapy after surgery

You might have radiotherapy after surgery to kill off any sarcoma cells that may have been left behind. This is called adjuvant radiotherapy.

You usually have between 6 and 7 weeks of treatments each weekday, with a rest at weekends. The treatment begins after your wound has completely healed. This is because it could slow down the healing process.

Radiotherapy for advanced sarcomas

You might have radiotherapy to control the growth of a sarcoma that has come back, or one that has spread and surgery isn't possible. Radiotherapy may not get rid of it completely. But it could help to shrink the tumour, or slow its growth and control symptoms. 

This type of radiotherapy is called palliative treatment. You usually have a few treatments, rather than several weeks of treatment. For example, you might have one treatment a day for a few days. Or you may have several treatments with a few days break between each.

You might have chemotherapy at the same time.