Radiotherapy for young people

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy is a localised treatment that can be used alone or together with chemotherapy and surgery to treat cancers. 

The most common type of radiotherapy uses very energy x-rays produced by a machine called a Linear Accelerator or LINAC. The radiotherapy rays have the same properties as a diagnostic x-ray; so just like an x-ray you will not feel or see anything while having the treatment.

How does radiotherapy work?

Radiation therapy is the use of high energy x-rays and similar rays (eg electrons) for the treatment of cancer. It destroys the ability of tumour cells to grow and multiply. Cancer cells are less able to repair themselves from the radiation damage. Healthy cells may also be damaged by radiation therapy but they are more able to repair themselves.

What are the steps in radiation therapy treatment?

Patient being scanned using a radiation machine

You will initially be referred to a radiation consultant for an appointment. Planning will then take place with radiation therapist.  

The planning phases can take longer than the radiotherapy treatments. This is because they have to make sure its exactly right to the millimetre so be patient if this takes a while (more than one appointment) it is a very important part of your treatment.

This may involve:

  • CT scans to ascertain exactly where the radiation needs to be directed.
  • Positioning. It is very important to get in a stable and comfortable position that can be replicated everyday.
  • To help with this if you are having radiation to your head you may need to have a mask made which will help you keep your head still for all your treatments.
  • Tiny tattoos may also be required. These can be used as a reference point for the radiation therapist to measure from each day to ensure treatment is given in exactly the right place.

How long does treatment take?

Treatment only takes about 20 minutes each session but allow an hour. Make sure you allow time for car parking – this can be a challenge if you are having your radiotherapy at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH).

If you have small children of your own and you do need to wait along time at the RAH or Adelaide radiotherapy centre ask about the kids activity rooms. It will help you entertain your kids while you wait.

Sometimes young people can also have radiotherapy at the Lyell McEwin Hospital, so if you live near here you should ask your doctor about this.

What are the side effects of radiotherapy

Side effects depend on where you are having the treatment, your diagnosis and the radiation prescription. As radiation therapy works by building up so you may not notice side effects at first and the side effects may not completely go until a few weeks after you have finished treatment.

You will only notice side effects in the area that is being treated for example if you are having radiation to your arm you will only notice symptoms there.

A general side effect of radiation is tiredness. Listen to your body and rest if you need to. For more specific side effects you might experience make sure you ask the Radiation oncologist or radiation therapist.