This guide includes some information about radiotherapy treatment. This is a general overview so if you have specific questions regarding your treatment please ask your radiation oncologist, radiation therapist or nurse.
What is the aim of radiotherapy?
To kill as many cancer cells as possible, while limiting the damage to the surrounding normal, healthy cells.
What can I expect during radiotherapy treatment and how long will the treatment take?
Initial consult & consent
This is your first appointment with the radiation oncologist to discuss your treatment options. Your doctor will explain what is involved with radiotherapy, including the risks, benefits and side effects. Please ask questions if any of the information is unclear. If you feel you need time to discuss your options with your family/carers, let your doctor know. When you are ready to go ahead you will be asked to sign a consent form, which means that you agree to have the radiation treatment and understand what it involves.
Note: It is important to mention if you may be pregnant or if you have a pacemaker/defibrillator/implantable electrical device at time of your initial consult so additional information can be collected during your simulation/planning session before starting your treatment.
Simulation and planning
Simulation is the first step in the treatment process, and planning is the process that follows. This may involve having a CT scan in the treatment position and having some markings or tattoos made on your skin to guide the treatment. Radiation health professionals use the information collected at simulation to design a treatment plan for you.
Read more about Having a radiotherapy planning computed tomography scan.
Treatment will usually be daily (Monday to Friday). Depending on the site and type of cancer it could be for just one day or for up to 9 weeks. Allow approximately one hour each time you receive treatment and this may be a bit longer on the first day for extra checks. You will be told when and how your treatment will be given well in advance.
It is advised that you do not become pregnant before or during your radiotherapy treatment, as the treatment may harm an unborn baby and cause birth abnormalities. If you have sexual intercourse during radiotherapy, use barrier methods of contraception, e.g. condoms. Please discuss with your radiation oncologist or treating team if you think you may be pregnant, as your treatment plan may need to be changed. Your doctor will be able to advise you on how long you should wait before becoming pregnant after radiotherapy.
On each day of treatment, the radiation therapist will position you on the treatment couch and check your measurements using the tattoos and marks made during simulation. X-rays will ensure you are in the correct position. Once you are positioned correctly on the treatment couch the radiation therapist will leave the room and turn on the treatment machine. You will hear the machine make a buzzing noise but you will not see or feel anything. It is important that you lie still and breathe normally while the machine is on. Most daily treatment times range between 10-20 minutes.
The treatment machine will not touch you but will move around you. The machine may be turned on and off during your treatment. Radiation is only being delivered when the machine is turned on. The radiation therapists can see and hear you via a monitor during your treatment. If you need help during your treatment, ask your radiation therapists how best to get their attention before you start so they can help you if needed.
Watch the video: Introduction to radiotherapy
Once you have received all of your radiotherapy treatment sessions, your radiation oncologist will provide a follow up plan and you will be advised what appointments are required. The radiation oncologist will see you a few weeks after you treatment has completed. You can discuss any concerns you have, side effects you may be experiencing and further appointments that are needed.
What are the side effects of radiotherapy?
The side effects from radiotherapy are different for each person, and will depend on the part of your body that is being treated. Your doctor or nurse can provide information about what to expect and how to manage and minimise the effects. Side effects start gradually and are usually temporary, and may worsen towards the end of treatment. Most side effects will improve within 4-6 weeks of completing treatment; however there may be a small risk of long term or late permanent side effects. Your radiation oncologist will discuss the risk of these with you before you consent to radiotherapy. It is important to let your treating team know if you are experiencing any side effects.
Treatment machine (linear accelerator)