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.

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 radiographers (sometimes called radiotherapists) 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 can usually help to arrange transport for you if you need help with travelling. This usually has to be agreed with your radiotherapy doctor and it is only for people that would struggle using public transport and have no access to a car.

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 one of the nurses or radiographers 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.

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 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.

Photograph of a radiotherapy machine which is used to give external radiotherapy.

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.

Often 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. 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. 

Your radiographers watch you carefully either through a window or on a closed circuit television screen. They may ask you to hold your breath or take shallow breaths during the treatment.

The short video below shows how you have radiotherapy:

  • External Beam Therapy (2nd edition) 
    Peter Hoskin
    Oxford University Press, 2012

  • Devita, Hellman and Rosenberg's Cancer Principles and Practice of Oncology (11th edition)
    VT Devita, TS Lawrence and SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer Health, 2019

Last reviewed: 
06 Nov 2020
Next review due: 
06 Nov 2023

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