General information on Radiotherapy:

This section has been written to give you information about radiotherapy. We hope that it will answer some of the questions that you may have about this treatment.

If you have any further questions relating to your treatment, please don't hesitate to ask the doctor, nurse or radiographer looking after you. It is important to talk to someone who is familiar with your treatment, as radiotherapy differs from one person to another. Other people you meet may be having different treatments, even if they have a similar type of cancer.

Why radiotherapy is given?

Radiotherapy is often given with the aim of destroying a tumour and curing the cancer. When radiotherapy is given in this way it is described as radical radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy may be used on its own or may be given before or after surgery or chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. If radiotherapy and chemotherapy are given at the same time, this treatment is known as chemoradiotherapy.

For some types of curative radiotherapy treatment, you may need to go to the hospital each weekday for between two and seven weeks. In this situation, a small dose of radiotherapy is given each time. This is because as well as damaging cancer cells, radiotherapy can also cause damage to healthy cells in the treatment area. If a very high dose of treatment was given all in one go, it could cause too much damage to the healthy cells, so small doses are given to allow them to recover in between.

General side effects of radiotherapy:

Eating and drinking:

As always during treatment of any kind, it is important to maintain a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids. At times you probably won't feel like eating, or you may find that your eating habits change. It may be easier to have small snacks throughout the day rather than large meals. It is not unusual to lose a little weight during radiotherapy, but if you are having any problems with eating it is important to tell the radiotherapy staff. They can arrange for you to talk to the dietitian at the hospital. Our section on eating well also gives useful advice on eating.

Skin care:

Some people develop a skin reaction while having external radiotherapy. If this effects you, it will normally happen after 3–4 weeks. People with pale skin may find that the skin in the treatment area becomes red and sore or itchy. People with darker skin may find that their skin becomes darker and can have a blue or black tinge. The amount of the reaction depends on the area being treated and the individual's skin.

Some people have no skin problems at all. Your radiographers will be looking for these reactions, but you should also let them know as soon as you notice any soreness or change in skin colour.

Smoking:

Stopping smoking during and after radiotherapy is very worthwhile. Research has shown that it may make the radiotherapy more effective as well as reducing the side effects. It will also improve your general health and reduce your risk of developing other cancers.

Stopping smoking or even cutting down at such a stressful time can be very difficult, but do your best. If you want help or advice you can talk to your specialist, GP or a specialist nurse, who will be able to suggest ways of stopping.