Radiotherapy: what to expect

Radiotherapy: what to expect

And onto radiotherapy. Pop the kettle on, make a cup of (green) tea and here are my top ten pointers for what to expect from radiotherapy:

1. Radiotherapy is a bit of a mopping up treatment – it aims to destroys any cancer cells that are hanging around the breast/lymph node area after chemo. Although some patients who didn’t need chemo (because there has been no spread of cancer cells to the lymph nodes or beyond), have radiotherapy as their main treatment. Some people also have radiotherapy to their neck area.

2. It can be quite a quick process. You arrive, take everything off your top half, hop on a table, get put into position by the radiographers, have your boobs and armpits zapped (whichever ones were your problem ones), hop off the table, get dressed and off you go. The whole process only takes around 15 minutes which is good because the room is chilly (to keep the machines at a low temperature). The zapping itself only takes seconds.

3. The zapping is done by some big machines which move around you whilst you are lying completely still on a table with your arms above your head. The radiographers are not in the room with you whilst the zapping is done, but they will either be behind a screen watching you, or just outside the room and can see you on their computer screens.

4. The zapping process itself does not hurt.

5. There are different methods of zapping your boobs. You’ll be told which type you will be having by either the oncologist or at an introduction appointment. Some types of radiotherapy require you to hold your breathe so that the breast area moves away from the heart, lungs and chest. This is usually given when you have radiotherapy to your left breast.

6. You usually have to have radiotherapy every day apart from the weekend. Although there are some hospitals which do give radiotherapy treatment at weekends.

7. Your oncologist determines the number of days for which you will have radiotherapy and this may be more or less than the lady who goes in before you and the lady who goes in after you. It is usually around 3 – 6 weeks.

8. Make sure you know what to expect of your radiotherapy by asking to visit the radiotherapy unit and asking questions before you start your treatment.

9. You will have a planning appointment at which you have a scan and the radiographers measure you and mark some pin point tattoos on your chest (they look like tiny, inconspicuous, black freckles – almost as if you have just marked yourself with the tip of a black biro. The tattoos are permanent but mine have faded to a grey 6 months later). These are to help the radiographers to get you in the correct position when you go for your radiotherapy treatments.

10. Side effects tend to kick in after about a week or two of having radiotherapy, and they peak at two weeks after the treatment has ended. You will have a red/brown discolouration to the skin area which is zapped. This area gets very dry and itchy so needs to be moisturised (see The Do’s and Don’t’s of Rads: My Top Ten Pointers). Sometimes the area can get sore or the skin damaged to a greater extent than just dryness. You will also get tired and possibly a bit achy. I noticed that my skin issues and my tiredness continued for a number of months after radiotherapy had ended: my breast care nurse told me that it wasn’t unusual to have these side effects for even 6 months after radiotherapy ends.


Breast Cancer Now have a booklet on radiotherapy which you can download or order here.

If you would like to read up on some of the more scientific-y technical aspects of radiotherapy then take a look at the Cancer Research UK blog on radiotherapy.

What I’d Wish I’d Known Before Radiotherapy – a Shine article.

The information and content provided on this page is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice.

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