In addition to killing cancer cells, radiation can damage the surrounding healthy tissue causing side effects. Even though normal cells can repair themselves in a way that cancer cells cannot, doctors try to protect healthy cells during treatment by:
- Using as low a dose of radiation as possible.
- Spreading out treatment over time. Spreading out the radiation dose allows normal cells to recover while cancer cells die.
- Aiming radiation at a precise part of your body. New techniques allow your doctor to aim higher doses of radiation at your cancer cells while reducing the radiation to nearby healthy tissue.
Using medicines. Some drugs can help protect certain parts of your body from the impact of radiation.
The severity of the side effects varies depending on the individual and the frequency and intensity of the dosages. Side effects may be more severe if you also receive chemotherapy before, during, or after your radiation therapy. Ask your doctor or nurse what you may expect based on the treatment you are getting.
Common Side Effects
Two of the most common side effects of radiation treatment are skin changes and fatigue. Other side effects depend on the part of your body being treated.
Skin changes may include:
- Redness, as if you have mild to severe sunburn
- Dryness and peeling
- Blistering, sores or ulcers
- Swollen and puffy skin
Radiation therapy causes skin cells to break down and die. The changes happen when the treatments are so frequent that the skin cells don't have enough time to grow back between sessions.
You will need to take special care of your skin during radiation therapy.
- You can take a lukewarm shower everyday, but limit baths to 30 minutes every other day.
- Pat yourself dry with a soft towel.
- Don't put anything on your skin that is very hot or cold.
- Cool humid rooms may make you more comfortable. Put a bowl of water in the room to increase the air moisture.
- Your doctor may prescribe special creams for your skin.
Fatigue is often described as feeling worn out or exhausted. There are many ways to manage fatigue. When you first feel fatigue depends on a few factors including your age, overall health and how you felt before the radiation began.
Fatigue can happen for many reasons. These include:
- Lack of activity
Fatigue can last from 6 weeks to 12 months after your last radiation therapy session. In some cases, you may feel like your prior level of energy never returns.
To help manage fatigue:
- Get enough sleep
- Take a nap, but don't sleep more than hour at a time
- Get some exercise
- Don't overdo
Support groups can help with ideas on how to manage fatigue.
Other side effects
Depending on the part of your body being treated, you may also have:
- Hair loss in the treatment area
- Mouth problems
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sexual changes
- Trouble swallowing
- Urinary and bladder changes
Most of these side effects go away within 2 months after radiation therapy is finished.
Working during treatment
How you feel depends on the treatments you are receiving and how they affect you as an individual. Some people are able to work full-time while others work only part-time or not at all. As the treatments continue, you may get to a point during your radiation therapy when you feel too sick to work.
Talk with your employer, in advance, to find out if you can go on medical leave. Make sure that your health insurance will pay for treatment when you are on medical leave. Riverside offers support services to help you navigate these issues. Ask your oncologist staff or call Ask A Nurse for information about services.
Late Side Effects
Late side effects, though rare, may first occur 6 or more months after radiation therapy is over and depending on the site of the cancer and your individual treatment, may include
- Joint problems that are caused by scar tissue
- Lymphedema or swelling in an arm or leg caused by the buildup of lymph fluid. Let your doctor know if you notice swelling in your arm or leg on the side where you had radiation. Ask about your risk of lymphedema and ways to prevent it. Your doctor or nurse may suggest exercises, medicines, or compression garments (special wraps to put on your legs or arms). You might also want to ask for a referral to a physical therapist.
- Mouth and jaw problems. Radiation to your neck or head may cause dry mouth, cavities, or bone loss in the jaw.
- Secondary cancer. Radiation therapy can cause a new cancer many years after you have finished treatment.
Everyone is different and you may not experience any late side effects. It is essential that you continue with follow-up care with your radiation oncologist or nurse practitioner. Your doctor or nurse will talk with you about late side effects and discuss ways to help prevent them, symptoms to look for, and how to treat them if they occur.