Having radiotherapy for advanced cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy waves similar to x-rays to kill cancer cells. 

Radiotherapy can shrink the cancer, relieve symptoms and help you feel more comfortable.

Radiotherapy might:

  • shrink the tumour if it’s causing a blockage
  • control your pain
  • stop or reduce bleeding from your stomach

Where do you have it?

You have external radiotherapy in the hospital radiotherapy department, usually as an outpatient. Some hospitals have rooms nearby that 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 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 your treatment

Your radiographers help you get into position on the treatment couch. They line up the radiotherapy machine, using the marks on your skin.

Then they leave you alone in the room for a few minutes for the treatment. This is so they aren't exposed to radiation. 

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

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

Radiotherapy to the stomach can make you tired. You might also have sickness (vomiting) or diarrhoea, which can make it difficult to eat.

Last reviewed: 
29 Aug 2019
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