When you might have radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is a common treatment for people with cancer. The two main reasons for having radiotherapy are to either try to cure cancer or to help control symptoms. 

Whether you have radiotherapy as part of your treatment depends on what type of cancer you have, how big it is and whether it has spread or not. 

Radiotherapy is good at treating certain cancers, whilst some are more resistant to radiation. This means radiotherapy would have less of an effect on these cancers.

Radiotherapy only treats the area of the body that it is aimed at. It is a local treatment.  

You might have radiotherapy: 

  • before surgery
  • after surgery
  • with chemotherapy or other drug treatment
  • on its own
  • to the whole body as part of a stem cell transplant (total body irradiation)

Treatment that aims to cure cancer

You often have radiotherapy with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy. Radiotherapy that aims to cure cancer is called radical or curative radiotherapy.

The length of your course of treatment depends on the size and type of the cancer and where it is in your body.

Controlling symptoms

Some people have radiotherapy to relieve symptoms, such as pain. This is called palliative treatment.

You might have emergency radiotherapy to help control certain symptoms. This means you have your treatment within 24 hours of being diagnosed. 

You might have your treatment on one day or for up to 2 weeks. But this can vary. 

Before surgery

You might have radiotherapy before surgery to shrink the cancer. This can make it easier to remove. For some people it will mean that surgery becomes possible, when before having radiotherapy it wasn't. 

This type of treatment is called neo adjuvant treatment or pre operative radiotherapy.

After surgery

Radiotherapy after surgery aims to kill any cancer cells that remain in the area after the operation. This is to try to lower the risk of the cancer coming back.

It is called adjuvant treatment or post operative radiotherapy.

Combining radiotherapy with cancer drugs

Chemotherapy can be given before, during or after a course of radiotherapy. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy given together is called chemoradiotherapy or chemoradiation.

Sometimes radiotherapy needs to be given at a certain time before or following chemotherapy. This is often the case if you are taking part in a clinical trial. 

Targeted cancer drugs can also be combined with radiotherapy to treat some types of cancer.

Total body irradiation (TBI)

Total body irradiation (TBI) is a type of radiotherapy sometimes given to people having a stem cell (or bone marrow) transplant, for example for some types of leukaemia or lymphoma. 

You have radiation to the whole body combined with chemotherapy. The treatment destroys the bone marrow cells.

You then have new stem cells put into your bloodstream. The stem cells are either your own or from someone else (a donor).

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

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

  • Practical Radiotherapy Planning (4th edition) 
    A Barret and S Morris
    Taylor and Francis, 2009 

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

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

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