Radiation Therapy

This is a treatment where high energy X-rays are directed at a cancer to cure or shrink the cancer or to protect the tissue against the tumour recurring. Usually the X-rays are delivered through a machine called a linear accelerator or cobalt machine. This is known as external radiotherapy. This type of treatment is always given to women who have had part of their breast removed. Radiotherapy is given to the breast tissue which remains after surgery. Radiotherapy may sometimes be given following a mastectomy.

Planning your treatment

Before radiotherapy your doctors and other specialists plan how to give it to you. They work out how to give you the right amount of radiotherapy with the least damage to normal cells. On your first visit to the radiotherapy department, you may be asked to lie under a simulator that takes X-rays of the area to be treated. Treatment planning is a very important part of radiotherapy and it may take a few visits before your treatment can go ahead. You will have marks put on the skin where you are to be treated. This may be with ink or a tiny permanent tattoo. This way the rays can be directed at the same area each day. The ink marks are temporary and should not be washed off until treatment is over. Before starting radiotherapy you will be told how to look after your skin during and after treatment.

Getting your radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treatment is quite straightforward. You will be asked to come for treatment every day during the week with a rest at weekends. Your treatment can go on for several weeks. Each treatment session only lasts a few minutes. It will not cause you any pain during treatment but you will be asked to lie still. How much you require will depend on the type and size of the tumour. Your doctors will discuss this with you. Each time you go for treatment you will go into a radiotherapy room.

The therapy radiographer will ask you to lie or sit in a certain position under the machine. When you are ready he or she will leave the room. The machine will then be turned on and your treatment given. Even though you are on your own in the room your radiographer will be able to see you all the time through a closed circuit camera. You can talk through an intercom to the radiography staff if you need to. External radiotherapy does not make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe for you to mix freely with family and friends.

Will you have any side effects?

Radiotherapy is given directly to the site of the cancer. Therefore, the side effects that occur are related to the part of the body being treated. How severe these side effects are will vary from person to person depending on the amount of treatment received. When the breast/chest wall is being treated the most common side effects are:

Skin changes

During radiotherapy the skin in the treated area may become red and sore. It may look like sunburn. A special cream can be used to treat this problem. Only use creams recommended to you by the nurses or therapy radiographers. If you need to wash the area use warm water and pat it dry with a soft towel. Do not rub the skin while washing and drying. Avoid perfumed creams or powders. Check with your radiotherapist or nurse before applying anything to your skin.


This can build up over the course of your treatment. It may be due to the treatment itself or maybe you have to travel long distances to come for treatment. Rest as much as you can. Cut down on the things you normally do while you are having treatment.


This can occur if the area being treated is close to your food pipe. Your breast care nurse will advise you on possible treatments. These or any other effects you develop will be monitored very carefully during the radiation treatments. Information will be given on how to prevent side effects and medication will be prescribed if needed. All these side effects should go away when treatment is over, but do let your doctor know if they continue.

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