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Date: 17 February 2020
The Radiotherapy department at Queen Elizabeth Hospitals Birmingham, part of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust is the largest department in the Midlands and has a broad range of treatment equipment and some of the most advanced facilities available in the country. The department has six linear accelerators, two TomoTherapy HD units and a Cyberknife robotic system.
What is radiotherapy?
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays, usually x-rays and similar rays (such as electrons) to treat disease. It works by destroying cells in the area that is treated. Normal healthy cells can also be damaged by radiotherapy which causes treatment side effects however, healthy tissue will repair but cancer cells can’t.
Many patients with cancer will have radiotherapy as part of their treatment. This can be used to control the symptoms of cancer. It can be given either as:
- external radiotherapy - from outside the body using high energy x-rays
- internal radiotherapy - from a radioactive material placed within the body - known as Brachytherapy
External radiotherapy is normally given as a series of short, daily treatments in the radiotherapy department using equipment similar to a large x-ray or CT machine. Patients are required to lie still and treatment is painless as it is similar to a long x-ray.
We are a teaching hospital and have student radiographers in the department everyday who are supervised by trained staff. Your radiotherapy is delivered by radiographers, both male and female.
Nobody can stay in the room with a patient whilst the machine is on but the radiographers that are operating the machine can see patients on cameras and have intercoms. If there is a problem radiographers will immediately stop the treatment and enter the treatment room.
Treatments are usually given once a day, with a rest at the weekend. Each treatment session takes between 10 to 30 minutes. Each treatment is called a fraction. Giving the treatment in fractions ensures that less damage is done to normal cells than to cancer cells. The damage to normal cells is mainly temporary, but this is what causes the side effects of radiotherapy.
External radiotherapy doesn’t make people radioactive so it is perfectly safe for patients to be with other people, including children, throughout treatment. However, it is extremely important that patients are not pregnant or become pregnant during their course of radiotherapy. Even a small amount of radiation may damage an unborn baby.
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