Having external radiotherapy

Your appointments for external radiotherapy will be in the radiotherapy department or proton beam therapy centre. External radiotherapy doesn't hurt although laying on the radiotherapy couch can be uncomfortable.

How often you have external radiotherapy

You have radiotherapy as a course of treatment and usually as an outpatient. This means travelling each day to the radiotherapy department at your nearest cancer centre or unit. This may be further away than your local hospital. You usually go to the hospital for treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday, with a break at weekends.

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

The treatment 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 therapeutic radiographers Open a glossary item 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 each treatment session

The radiographers help you to get onto the treatment couch. They help position you on any equipment you are using for 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.

The radiographers line up the radiotherapy machine using the marks on your body. Once you are in the right position, they leave the room. This is so they are not exposed to the radiation.

Having external radiotherapy 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 watch you carefully. They 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 will be alone for a few minutes or up to 15 minutes, depending on the type of treatment you are having. Some treatments, such as total body radiotherapy can take up to an hour. 

The short video below shows how you have radiotherapy:

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. It 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 radiographers 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
  • advice on discounted parking
  • tips on free places to park nearby

The radiotherapy staff can usually help to arrange transport for you if you need help with travelling. This usually has to be agreed with your radiotherapy doctor. It is only for people that would struggle using public transport and have no access to a car. It might not always be at convenient times.

Some hospitals have their own drivers and local charities might offer hospital transport. So do ask if any help is available in your area.

Staying near the hospital

There are places you can stay if you find it difficult to get to the hospital. These include: 

  • the hospital ward (if you are too unwell to travel)

  • a hostel ward in the hospital or nearby

  • accommodation close to the hospital

Paying for travel costs

You might be able get a grant towards your travel expenses. People on low incomes can sometimes claim the costs from the Department for Work and Pensions. 

Ask the hospital social worker or staff in the radiotherapy clinic about grants and how you can claim.

Money might be set aside to help with your travel costs if you are taking part in a clinical trial. Although this is not common. You can ask the staff in the radiotherapy department about that.

  • External Beam Therapy (Radiotherapy in Practice) Third Edition
    Peter Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2019

  • Devita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)
    VT Devita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer Health, 2023

Last reviewed: 
02 Nov 2023
Next review due: 
02 Nov 2026

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