Radiotherapy treatment is a painless procedure which uses radiation, usually high energy x-rays to treat disease. It can cure many cancers by destroying the tumour or stopping it from growing any further.
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In breast cancer, patients will usually have radiotherapy after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that may be left behind in the breast tissue. Occasionally, radiotherapy is used to slow the cancer and to manage and reduce its symptoms. It is unusual to use radiotherapy before surgery in breast cancer.
What does radiotherapy treatment for cancer do?
The radiotherapy treatment which is given to destroy and potentially cure a cancer is called radical or curative radiotherapy. Some benign (non-cancerous) conditions can also be treated using radiotherapy. Radiotherapy works by damaging the DNA within cancer cells causing them to stop growing or die. Normal cells are also affected by radiation, but they are better at repairing themselves than cancerous cells.
The length of a whole treatment is dependent on the type and stage of your cancer. Once prescribed, a complete external beam radiotherapy dose is broken down into small doses, called fractions, which are usually delivered daily.
There is a two-day break each week, generally at weekends (although this may vary from time to time), which allows any healthy cells, which grow at a slower rate than cancerous ones, time to repair themselves.
Although the complexity of each treatment is different, on average, each daily appointment is around 20 to 30 minutes and around 20 minutes of this time is spent on the LINAC, which is the machine that delivers the small doses of radiation.
The LINAC, or linear accelerator, is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment which moves quietly delivering precisely calculated doses of radiation. There is nothing to see or feel during the treatment. – just a slight buzzing noise from the machine and you are welcome to play music on an iPod if you like.
During treatment, you can wear a gown or your own clothes; however, clothing needs to be removed from the area receiving the radiotherapy.
Once the radiographers have positioned you onto the couch, they will leave the room. However, they can see and hear you at all times via a CCTV camera and they can communicate with you through an intercom.
You are not ‘radioactive’ after treatment and there is no risk to your family and friends.