Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 2 April 2021
Table of contents
Radiation therapy is a form of cancer treatment that involves the use of high-energy waves to destroy tumour cells. The aim is to kill or damage the cancer cells while not affecting too many healthy cells.
This treatment can have side effects, although they vary from person to person. The ones you have are determined by the kind of radiation you get, the amount of radiation you receive, the area of your body that is treated, and your general health.
It’s impossible to know how radiation can affect you. You can have little or just minor side effects as a result of the medication, while anyone else may have several or serious issues.
You’ll consult with a specialist who specialises in this form of care as you get radiation therapy. It’s crucial to explore how the therapy can help you feel and what you can do to feel better with them. Let the doctor know if the treatment makes you feel uncomfortable. If you keep the medical team updated, they will assist you in completing the treatment.
When Will I Notice Side Effects From Radiation Therapy?
Radiation side effects may be divided into two categories: early and late. Nausea and exhaustion are common early side effects that fade quickly. They may begin during or shortly after aftercare and continue for several weeks after it is finished, but they will ultimately improve. Late adverse effects, such as respiratory or cardiac issues, will take years to manifest, and if they are, they are always lasting.
Fatigue and skin disorders are the most prominent early side effects. Depending on which area you receive radiation, you may experience other side effects such as hair loss and nausea.
How Do I Manage Fatigue?
The exhaustion you experience as a result of cancer and radiation treatment is unlike any other occasion you’ve been exhausted. It’s a kind of exhaustion that doesn’t go away with rest and can prevent you from doing activities like going to work or enjoying time with family and friends. It can also change from day to day, making it impossible to prepare for. It can also impact your ability to adhere to your cancer treatment schedule.
If you’re feeling fatigued, speak to the doctor. They may be able to assist you. There are also several things you should do to improve your mood:
- Take good care of yourself. Make sure you’re taking your prescriptions exactly as directed. Get enough sleep, be as active as possible, and consume the right foods.
- Consult a counselor or join in a class at the cancer treatment centre to learn how to conserve energy, alleviate discomfort, and avoid focusing on your exhaustion.
- Save your energy on the things that really matter the most to you.
- Maintain a healthy balance between rest and activity. You will get more exhausted if you spend so much time in bed. However, don’t overexert yourself and always remember to take breaks between tasks.
- Ask for help from family and friends. If stress is interfering with your job, speak with your boss or HR department regarding taking days off or making scheduling changes.
Keep in mind that radiation therapy exhaustion would likely subside within a few weeks of the treatment’s completion.
Skin Problems Radiation Treatment Can Cause
External radiation treatment has a direct effect on the skin similar to what occurs when you spend hours in the sun. It could become reddened, sunburned, or tanned. It may even get inflamed or blistered. It’s also likely that the skin may get oily, flaky, or itchy. It could also start to peel.
Take care of your skin:
- Do not cover the treated region with tight clothes.
- Avoid scrubbing or scratching the skin. Use a gentle wash to clean it and lukewarm water to rinse it.
- Unless a doctor advises you otherwise, avoid placing something hot or cold on the affected region.
- Before applying any ointment, oil, lotion, or powder to the skin, consult the doctor.
- Inquire into the usage of corn starch to alleviate itching.
- Keep as much of the skin out of the sun as possible. To shield the area getting radiation, cover it with clothing or hats. When you must stay outside, talk to your doctor about applying sunscreen.
- If you’re getting radiation for breast cancer, avoid wearing a bra. If that’s not an option, go with a soft, cotton bra with no underwire.
- Unless the doctor orders you to, don’t use tape, gauze, or bandages on your skin.
After a few weeks of treatment, the skin should start to feel better. When it recovers, it may take on a darker shade. And once the radiation treatment is over, you’ll need to protect yourself from the sun.
Hair Fall In Radiation Treatment
Hair loss is only likely with patients who receive radiation to the scalp or brain. If it does happen, it usually occurs all of a sudden and in clumps. When treatment is stopped, the hair will usually regrow, but it will be thinner and have a different texture.
To reduce the weight on the hair shaft, certain individuals choose to shave their hair short before therapy starts. If you’re losing hair on top of your head, make sure to cover your skin from the sun by wearing a hat or scarf whenever you step outside. If you plan to get a wig, get a prescription from the doctor to see if it’s covered by your health insurance.
Other Possible Early Side Effects Of Radiation Therapy
Other early side effects are normally dependent on where the radiation is provided.
You may lose your appetite if you get radiation treatment to the head, neck, or parts of your digestive system. However, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet when undergoing therapy in order to keep the body in good shape.
- Instead of three big meals, consider consuming five to six small ones during the day.
- Experiment with new foods and recipes.
- Always have healthy snacks with you. It would encourage you to eat whenever you are hungry rather than waiting for mealtimes and potentially losing your appetite.
See the dentist for a thorough examination before beginning radiation to the head or neck. Radiation can trigger a number of issues in your mouth, including:
- Mouth sores like ulcers or cuts
- Dry mouth – lack of saliva
- Thick saliva
- Difficulty swallowing
- Jaw stiffness
Any of these issues should be brought to the attention of the cancer team so that they can assist you in feeling better. To help you cope with these side effects, try the following:
- Avoid spicy or acidic foods.
- Do not smoke, chew tobacco, or drink alcohol.
- Brush your teeth regularly with fluoride toothpaste and a soft-bristle brush.
Hearing loss may occur as a result of head radiation therapy. One explanation may be that it causes the earwax to harden. If you’re having difficulty hearing, tell the doctor.
Nausea and vomiting may be triggered by radiation to the head, neck, and some parts of the digestive tract. If this occurs, inform the doctor. They will give you medication to help you manage it. You will also be able to control and reduce nausea through learning relaxation techniques and biofeedback.
Radiation to the abdomen may induce diarrhea, which normally occurs a few weeks after treatment begins. To help control it, the doctor would most likely prescribe medication. They’ll also recommend dietary adjustments including consuming smaller meals more often, reducing high-fiber foods, and having enough potassium.
Fertility and Sexual Issues
Radiation treatment to the pelvis can impair your sex drive and your ability to conceive. If you plan to start a family or have more children, speak to your doctor regarding how treatment could impact your fertility before beginning treatment.
Women should avoid trying to conceive when having radiation therapy because it may affect the infant. It may even interrupt cycles and trigger some menopausal symptoms.
Radiation to the testes may affect the number of sperm and how well they perform in males. This does not rule out the possibility of having a child. However, if you plan to start a family later, speak to your doctor about whether you should use a sperm bank before starting treatment.
Treatment to the pelvis may make intercourse uncomfortable for certain patients, as well as causing scarring that reduces the ability of the vaginal opening to stretch, causing pain. Radiation has the potential to damage the nerves and blood vessels that regulate erections in males. Your doctor will assist you in determining what could happen and how to manage it.
When you’re undergoing cancer treatment, it’s normal to lose interest in sex. However, once treatment is complete, your sex drive will normally return. Discuss how you and your partner can stay connected. Make sure you pay attention to their needs as well.
Late Side Effects From Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy’s late side effects take months, if not years, to manifest and typically do not go away. However, these will not be applicable to all.
These issues arise as the body is damaged by radiation. Scar tissue, for example, may change the way your lungs and heart function. Radiation to the abdomen or pelvis may cause bladder, bowel, fertility, and sexual disorders.
Another potential long-term consequence is the development of secondary cancer. For a long time, experts have recognised that radiation can cause cancer. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that radiation therapy for one cancer can increase the risk of developing another cancer later on. The amount of radiation used and the area treated are two factors that can impact the risk. Discuss the possible risk with the doctor and how it compares to the benefits you’ll get from radiation therapy.
Referenced on 2.4.2021
- Cancer.net: “Side Effects of Radiation Therapy."
- American Cancer Society: “Radiation Therapy Effects," “A Guide to Radiation Therapy.”
- American Brain Tumor Association: “Help With Side Effects – Radiation Therapy."