Radiotherapy is also called radiation therapy. It uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells in one part of the body. The rays are high energy rays, like big rays of light. We can’t feel or see them and there is no pain when it is given. It is a common treatment for cancer. It works on the area of the body where the cancer is. Most people who have radiotherapy have it 5 days a week for up to 4-6 weeks. Each session can take 15 minutes or more. Doctors work it out to suit each different person and what they need.

Some radiotherapy is given externally, onto the outside of the body. Some radiotherapy is given internally, which is known as brachytherapy.

The type of radiation therapy your doctors recommend will depend on the type and location of your cancer, your general health and other treatments you might have had.

Your doctors will talk to you about what treatments they recommend and what options are best for you.

What are the side-effects of radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy needs to be strong to destroy cancer.

Most people who have radiotherapy get side-effects like being tired, or sore and red skin where the x-rays point. Some people don’t get any side effects at all.

If you have the therapy to your head and neck, you might get mouth ulcers. If you have it to your belly, you might feel sick. There might be other side-effects too. Your doctor and the people in the clinic giving the radiotherapy will tell you what to expect and how to treat side effects.

Most side-effects start a few weeks after treatment starts. They go for a few weeks after treatment ends.

What can I do about the side-effects of radiotherapy?

Tell your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker about side-effects. They will help work out what the problems is and what could be done to help you.

Listen to your body and rest as much as possible. Ask people to help you out, let them know what you need and what they could do. If you work, take time off, or work fewer hours.

Mob who have had radiation say that rest is important to recover from radiation as well as spending time on Country, traditional healing, bush medicine and cultural practices.

Most side-effects go away in 4-6 weeks but some people can have bouts of feeling tired for longer after treatment.

Where can I have radiotherapy?

You can only have radiotherapy in cities and some big towns – see this list. If your doctor thinks radiotherapy would help, and you don’t live near a radiotherapy site, assistance is available for travel and accommodation for you and your family. Yarn with your doctor, nurse, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker.

Mob who have had cancer treatment away from home or Country say that connecting to Country locally, having family around, visits from local mob, getting messages from people back home and yarning with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health workers help to look after our spirit and wellbeing.

What questions should I ask?

  • Is radiotherapy recommended for me?
  • Where will I need to go for radiotherapy?
  • How long will radiotherapy last?
  • If I have to travel a long way for radiotherapy, can I get help for travel and accommodation costs?
  • What side-effects can I expect and when? How can I manage them?
  • Who should I contact if side-effects develop?
  • Can I still work while I’m having radiotherapy?
  • Can I still drive while I’m having radiotherapy?
  • When will I have radiotherapy if I’m having other treatments for cancer?
  • How much will radiotherapy cost?
  • Are there any activities I should not do during treatment?
  • If my cancer is considered, Women’s Business or Men’s Business, how can I request only female or male medical practitioners during treatment?
  • How can I combine my cultural practices, bush medicines or traditional healing with radiation?

Understanding treatment options

Radiation therapy (also known as radiotherapy) uses radiation to destroy cancer cells.