Radiotherapy for cancer in young people

The three main treatments for cancer are radiotherapy, surgery, and chemotherapy depending of a number of different factors. These include the type of cancer, where it is in the body, what the cancer cells look like when examined microscopically, and whether they have spread to other parts of the body.
Radiotherapy works by destroying cancer cells using high-energy radio waves. The way that these radio waves are given are designed to do as little harm as possible to the rest of the body. Before treatment starts, patients have a planning session with their doctor and nurses, so that everyone knows what is going to be involved and how to best cope with any immediate or long term side effects. Some of the people we interviewed described this planning session as just a ’chat’. 
Depending on which part of the body is going to be treated, a plastic mask or shield may be made to hold the part of the body having radiotherapy still and make sure the radiotherapy reaches only just the right place. This nearly always happens if the treatment is for a tumour of the head, neck or brain. Patients may also be given tiny skin tattoos to indicate the precise place where the radiotherapy beams will be aimed during treatment. During radiotherapy treatment everyone else (including parents) has to leave the room to make absolutely certain they don’t receive any of the radiotherapy waves. The patient does however remain in constant communication with the staff using an intercom.

Although radiotherapy can be given as the main treatment for cancer, it is often given as an added therapy after surgery or chemotherapy, to prevent recurrence.

Radiotherapy is also sometimes given if another first line treatment (surgery or chemotherapy) does not control the cancer.

Occasionally a young person with a brain tumour being treated with radiotherapy had to stay in hospital. But most of those we interviewed lived at home and attended an out-patients clinic for the daily radiotherapy treatment. This could of course be really disruptive since many patients having this treatment had to go to hospital for radiotherapy every day, Monday to Friday, for up to six weeks. One young man said he felt a bit guilty that his parents had had to spend so much time driving him to his daily appointments. It is, in some cases, possible to have your radiotherapy at a hospital that is more local to your home, in order to save travelling time.

Once all the initial preparations have been made the actual daily sessions may be quite quick - 10 or 20 minutes - although the whole visit can take considerably longer if the clinic is crowded. This can have the advantage of being able to chat to other patients who you might see every day for several weeks! 
Radiotherapy doesn’t have to take over your whole life, and some of those who received radiotherapy as out-patients continued with their normal routines including attending school and seeing friends.

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Side effects of radiotherapy
Tiredness can be an annoying and common side effect and may last for quite a period of time. Other side effects may depend on which part of the body is being treated. Radiotherapy to the head often does cause hair loss. Also skin can become very dry or appear severely sunburned in the place where the radiotherapy beam has been directed.
Certain areas of the brain, if treated with radiotherapy can interfere with growth especially in younger people, though this can be treated using special injections of ’growth hormone’. Other hormone problems may occur and so you will be seen by a specialist doctor called an endocrinologist. He/she will make sure that you are given the hormone substitutes that you need. Those people who had both chemotherapy and radiotherapy sometimes said that radiotherapy was easy - even pleasant - compared with chemo but it did appear that people treated with both did tend to sometimes have additional long term side effects.

Last reviewed December 2017.

Last updated November 2014.


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