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Overview - Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is a treatment where radiation is used to kill cancer cells.

When radiotherapy is used

Radiotherapy may be used in the early stages of cancer or after it has started to spread.

It can be used to:

  • try to cure the cancer completely (curative radiotherapy)
  • make other treatments more effective – for example, it can be combined with chemotherapy or used before surgery (neo-adjuvant radiotherapy)
  • reduce the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery (adjuvant radiotherapy)
  • relieve symptoms if a cure is not possible (palliative radiotherapy)

Radiotherapy is generally considered the most effective cancer treatment after surgery, but how well it works varies from person to person.

Types of radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can be given in several ways. Your doctors will recommend the best type for you.

The most common types are:

  • external radiotherapy, where a machine is used to carefully aim beams of radiation at the cancer
  • radiotherapy implants (brachytherapy), where small pieces of radioactive metal are (usually temporarily) placed inside your body near the cancer
  • radiotherapy injections, capsules or drinks (radioisotope therapy), where you swallow a radioactive liquid, or have it injected into your blood
  • intrabeam radiotherapy, where radiation is delivered directly at the tumour during breast cancer surgery (this treatment is not available at all NHS hospitals)

Radiotherapy is usually given in hospital. You can usually go home soon after external radiotherapy, but you may need to stay in hospital for a few days if you have implants or radioisotope therapy.

Most people have several treatment sessions, which are typically spread over the course of a few weeks.

Read more about what happens during radiotherapy.

Side effects of radiotherapy

As well as killing cancer cells, radiotherapy can damage some healthy cells in the area being treated.

This can cause some side effects, such as:

  • sore, red skin
  • feeling tired
  • hair loss in the area being treated
  • feeling sick
  • losing your appetite
  • a sore mouth
  • diarrhoea

Many of these side effects can be treated or prevented and most will pass after treatment stops.

External radiotherapy does not make you radioactive, as the radiation passes through your body.

The radiation from implants or injections can stay in your body for a few days, so you may need to stay in hospital and avoid close contact with other people for a few days as a precaution.

Read more about the side effects of radiotherapy.

Media last reviewed: 3 July 2018
Media review due: 3 July 2021

Page last reviewed: 25 February 2020
Next review due: 25 February 2023