Having external beam radiotherapy for thyroid cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer cells. External radiotherapy uses a radiotherapy machine to aim radiation beams at a cancer. You have this treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. It doesn't hurt, although laying on the radiotherapy couch can be uncomfortable.

Before you start, you have an appointment to plan your radiotherapy. 

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.

How you have external radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy as a course of treatment. You usually go to the hospital for treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday, with a break at weekends for 4 to 6 weeks. 

You might have a shorter course of treatment or a single treatment if you are having radiotherapy to control symptoms.

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

Having external radiotherapy treatment

You can’t feel radiotherapy when you actually have the treatment.

Because your position is so important, the radiographers may take a little while to get you ready. You can help by trying to relax as much as possible during this time.

Before the radiotherapy starts, the radiographers will take some x-ray images to make sure you are in the right position.

Once you are in the right position your radiographers leave you alone in the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation.

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.

Side effects

Modern radiotherapy techniques mean that your team can target a very precise area containing the cancer. They also try to plan your treatment so that it causes as few side effects as possible. 
But any healthy cells in the treatment field are also affected and this causes side effects.

Radiotherapy to the neck can cause:

  • tiredness
  • sore, red skin in the treatment area
  • a sore throat
  • pain on swallowing
  • a dry mouth
  • a hoarse voice
  • swelling in your face or neck (lymphoedema)

Radiotherapy side effects usually start gradually, during your course of treatment. Not everyone has side effects. But if you are going to get them, they are usually at their worst around 10 to 14 days after the end of your course. Over the following 2 to 3 weeks, they slowly get better.

If you have side effects, speak to the radiographer or nurse in your radiotherapy department. They will be able to help you. If your throat is very sore, you may need painkillers.

Generally, doctors prefer to give the radiotherapy without any breaks. But very rarely, where side effects are particularly severe, treatment can be stopped for a while to allow you to recover.

Remember not to put any lotions, powders or creams on skin in the treatment area without checking with your nurses, radiographers or doctors. If you have any soreness, these may make things worse not better. Ask at the radiotherapy department and the staff can give you something to soothe your skin if you need it.

It would also be best to avoid shaving your face, as it will irritate your skin more.

You can find more information about the side effects of radiotherapy to the head and neck area and other parts of the body.

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