Radiotherapy is a way of treating cancers using x-rays or other types of radiation. It is also known as radiation therapy.
The two main types of radiotherapy are external beam radiotherapy and brachytherapy. Some people will have one of these treatments and others will have both.
What you need to know
External beam radiotherapy (EBRT)
External beam radiotherapy (EBRT) uses beams of x-rays or other radiation to treat cancer from outside the body. The beams are produced by a large machine called a linear accelerator.
There are several different types of EBRT. Most involve having treatment 5 days a week for a number of weeks. Others only need a small number of treatments.
When you go for treatment, most of the time is used to set you up in the right position. The actual radiation beam is only on for a few minutes.
EBRT is not painful and you won’t feel anything during the treatment. You will hear some buzzing noises and the machine will move around you but it won’t touch you. The radiation therapist can see and hear you throughout the treatment.
Brachytherapy treats cancers by using small radiation sources inside the body, or on or near the skin. Each source is slightly smaller than a grain of rice. When brachytherapy is used inside the body, it is sometimes called internal radiotherapy.
For some patients, the radiation source is put in place for a short time and then removed. For others, the radiation sources are put in the body and left there permanently. These patients can go home once the sources are in position.
The radiation oncology team
Health professionals who work as part of the radiation oncology team include:
- radiation oncologists – specialist doctors who plan and manage radiotherapy
- radiation therapists – health professionals who work with radiation oncologists to calculate and deliver the radiotherapy
- radiation oncology nurses – nurses who work with other team members to support and care for patients during their treatment
- radiation oncology medical physicists – scientists who make sure that the radiotherapy machines and computers are set up correctly.
What to ask or talk about
Side effects of radiotherapy
Most people get some side effects with radiotherapy. These depend on the part of the body treated, and how the person responds to the treatment.
Common side effects include:
- redness and other skin changes in the treatment area
- hair loss in the treatment area
- tiredness (fatigue).
Other side effects depend on the area treated. Ask your doctor or nurse what side effects to expect, and how to manage them.
Will I be radioactive?
External beam radiotherapy (EBRT) does not make patients radioactive.
Brachytherapy patients can be radioactive while they are receiving treatment. Those who go home with radioactive sources in their body will give out a very small amount of radiation which reduces over time.
Some other types of radiotherapy can also make patients radioactive for a time after treatment.
Preparing for radiotherapy
Before radiotherapy, you will need to sign a consent form. It is important you understand what you are consenting to and the possible side effects.
Some things you should know are:
- whether you need any tests before starting radiotherapy
- if you need to change your diet or medications
- when you have to be there
- if you need to have time off work
- if you will be able to drive after radiotherapy.