Where you have radiotherapy

You usually have radiotherapy as an outpatient, which means travelling each day to the radiotherapy department at your nearest cancer centre or unit. This may be further away than your local hospital. 

If you prefer to have treatment at a particular time of day, let the radiotherapy staff know so they can try to arrange this. Some hospitals might have accommodation that you can stay in if you live very far away. If you're already staying in hospital, you go to the radiotherapy department each day from your ward.

For some types of internal radiotherapy you might have to stay in hospital for a few nights. 

External radiotherapy equipment

There are many different types of radiotherapy equipment. The most common radiotherapy machine is a Linear Accelerator (LINAC).

The type of radiotherapy machine that you have your treatment with depends on where your cancer is. For example, whether it's near to the skin surface or not, whether it has spread and the type of cancer. 

Most radiotherapy machines are very big. This means they are often in large rooms.  

Some radiotherapy machines can also take x-rays. This helps to make sure that you are in the same position as your planning scan for your treatment. Whether or not you have x-rays before treatment depends on where your cancer is. For example, your radiographer won't take x-rays for treatment of skin cancer, as they can clearly see where they need to treat.

It's normal to feel anxious about radiotherapy treatment. But as you get to know the staff and the procedure it usually gets easier. Don't be afraid to talk to the staff about any fears or worries. They are there to help you.

Internal radiotherapy equipment

There are two main types of internal radiotherapy:

Radioactive implants

The machines used for internal radiotherapy are much smaller than for external radiotherapy. They often have wheels on the bottom so they can be moved around. They contain a radioactive metal object called a source or implant. The source may be a small sealed metal tube, seeds or wires.

When switched on, the source travels out of the machine through thin tubes (applicators) into your body. The machines can look slightly different depending on the area being treated and the applicators that are attached.

The radiographers control the machine from a remote control outside the room once the applicators are in place. The radioactive source stays inside your body for anything from a few minutes to a few days. You have treatment as a day case or as an inpatient.

If the radioactive source is in place for a few days, you stay in a single room in the hospital so that other people aren't exposed to any radiation. When your radiographer removes the source you are no longer radioactive.

Some types of radioactive seeds are left in the body permanently. This gives radiation to a tiny area around the seeds and after a set time they lose all their radiation.

Radioactive liquids

Radioactive liquids can treat some types of cancer, such as thyroid cancer or cancer that has spread to the bones (secondary bone cancer). You may have the liquid as a drink or by injection into a vein. The liquid circulates in the blood and gets absorbed by the cancer cells.

For some types of cancer, the doctor may inject a radioactive liquid into the part of the body containing the tumour, instead of into a vein.

After some types of radioactive liquid treatment, you may need to stay in hospital in a single room for a few days. You can go home once the amount of radioactivity in your body falls to safe levels.

With some types of internal radiotherapy, the dose of radiation is so low that you can go straight home after the treatment.

Before you leave hospital, the staff check that you and your belongings are free of radioactivity. Check with the staff about how much time you can spend with friends or family and how close you can get to them.

Travelling to radiotherapy appointments

The radiotherapy department staff may be able to give you a hospital parking permit to use for your appointments. Or you may be able to have discounted parking rates.

The staff can tell you about where to get help with travel fares. If you can't travel on your own, staff can arrange for you to travel by hospital transport or ambulance if necessary.

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

  • Radiotherapy in practice - Brachytherapy (2nd edition)
    P Hoskin, C Coyle
    Oxford University Press, 2011

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

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