The process of informed consent requires patients to receive written information to help them to make a decision about treatment.
This page is a written version of the information your oncology doctor has told you about radiotherapy for head and neck cancer. It includes sections on the most commonly asked questions, about the treatment procedure and the side effects, which may occur with this sort of treatment.
Whilst it is important to make you aware of side effects associated with the treatment it is equally important to put this into perspective. We hope this information will help you weigh up the benefits of having adequate treatment now against the risks of late side effects of radiotherapy treatment.
This page is only a short summary. Throughout the process the doctors, radiographers and nurses will be there to explain what will happen in more detail and to answer any questions you may have. If you need further advice please do not hesitate to ask. At the bottom of this page, you will find further suggestions of where you may wish to go for help.
If at any time you think you may be pregnant, please inform your radiographer/consultant as soon as possible.
What is radiotherapy?
- Radiotherapy is the use of high energy x-rays to treat cancer. The x-rays are produced by a machine called a linear accelerator and are able to damage and destroy cancer cells within the treatment area.
- Radiotherapy also affects normal cells in the area being treated, but they are generally more able to recover than cancer cells.
- Treatment is usually given regularly over a period of time to have the greatest effect on the cancer cells whilst limiting the damage to normal cells.
When is it used?
Radiotherapy can be used:
- To treat cancer after surgery
- To treat cancer instead of surgery
- To treat the symptoms of cancer
Sometimes chemotherapy may be given with radiotherapy.
How is it given?
Radiotherapy is usually given in daily sessions Monday to Friday, with weekends off. You will come in for treatment as an outpatient unless you experience difficulties with any side effects when you might come into hospital for a short while.
Is there any preparation for the procedure?
Because dental work is best carried out before treatment you may be asked to have a dental check-up as part of the preparation. The aim of treatment is to treat the tumour whilst sparing as much of the surrounding healthy tissue as possible. In order to achieve this mask is individually fitted and used to help immobilise you during treatment.
Please ask to see our booklets:
- Making your treatment mask
- Radiotherapy to Head, Neck, Mouth and Throat
Once the mask is made your radiotherapy treatment can be planned.
Planning your treatment
Your doctor will look at your test results, the type of tumour you have, where it is and the extent of the disease. All of this information helps decide how best to deliver your radiotherapy.
A CT scan is used to plan and prepare your treatment and this takes place in the Oncology Department with you wearing your mask. Depending on the area of treatment small permanent marks the size of a pinhead (tattoos) may be made on your upper chest, this enables the radiographers to achieve an accurate and consistent treatment each day.
How many times will I need to have treatment?
Your doctor will have discussed with you the number of treatments you are to have. Normally four to seven weeks of treatment are given. The actual number depends on exactly which part of your head or neck is being treated.
What does treatment involve?
The treatment is given using a machine called a linear accelerator. You lie on the treatment couch with your mask on. The radiographers position you using laser lights and marks that have been made on your mask and skin.
Once you are in the correct position the radiographers will ask you to stay very still and breathe normally. The machine is moved around you by the radiographers to treat you from different directions.
You are in the treatment room on your own whilst the radiation beam is on. The radiographers will monitor you on closed circuit television during the treatment.
Will I be radioactive?
No. As soon as the radiation beam is switched off all radiation disappears. Once the treatment is finished you will be free to go home. It will be perfectly safe to be with other people including children.
Will the procedure be painful?
The treatment itself is totally painless, although some patients can smell burning, which is the result of the radiation in the air.
Some patients experience difficulties because the mask has to be firm to ensure accurate treatment. However, you are in the position for a very short time, and the radiographers will release you from the mask as soon as the treatment is over.
How can I help myself?
You can help yourself by cutting out or cutting down on alcohol and smoking. Reactions to treatment are more severe in those who drink and smoke.
If you have further questions
If you are at all concerned about the treatment, what it involves and what it means for you, do not hesitate to ask at any time. You will find a number of contact names and numbers on the bottom of this page.
Further advice about your treatment
If you are unsure about any aspect of your treatment please ask your oncology doctor, radiographer or nurse.
For advice or if you need further information you can visit the Cancer Information Centre. It is in the Centre for Oncology, in the waiting area opposite reception. Opening hours for the centre are 10.00am - 4.00pm, Monday - Friday. No appointment is necessary. You can telephone the centre on (01604) 544211.
The Macmillan head and neck clinical nurse specialist is available for counselling and support for patients and their families or carers. She can be contacted during office hours on (01604) 523860 and is available at any stage before, during or following your treatment.
If you would like to speak to someone outside the hospital for advice or information Macmillan can be contacted via the website www.macmillan.org.uk or the telephone helpline 0808 808 00 00 Monday - Friday 9.00am - 8.00pm.
Northampton General Hospital operates a smoke-free policy. This means that smoking is not allowed anywhere on the Trust site, this includes all buildings, grounds and car parks.
Leaflets, information, advice and support on giving up smoking and on nicotine replacement therapy are available from the local Stop Smoking helpline on 0845 6013116, the free national helpline on 0300 123 1044, email: email@example.com and pharmacies.
Car parking at Northampton General Hospital is extremely limited and it is essential to arrive early, allowing ample time for parking. You may find it more convenient to be dropped off and collected.
This information can be provided in other languages and formats upon request including Braille, audio cassette and CD. Please contact (01604) 523442 or the Patient Advice & Liaison Service (PALS) on (01604) 545784, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This information was taken from Northampton General Hospital leaflet PC134 (Aug 2019).