Radiation therapy is a proven effective cancer treatment, and one that is improving all the time, but there are some radiation therapy side effects that patients might experience.
Radiation therapy directs high-energy particles or waves, such as X-rays, gamma rays, or electron beams, at a tumor. These beams damage the DNA molecules inside cancer cells so they can no longer grow and divide. This type of treatment can cause side effects because while the radiation kills cancer cells, it may also harm nearby healthy cells. The good news is that radiation therapy is becoming more precisely targeted, reducing the damage to healthy cells.
Here are answers to common questions about radiation therapy side effects.
What radiation therapy side effects are common?
As with any medical treatment, radiation may cause side effects in some people, but not others. Likewise, those side effects can vary; in some people they may seem very unpleasant, while others will barely notice them.
Because radiation is localized to the area of the tumor, most side effects occur at the radiation site. That means, unless you’re getting radiation directed to your head, you probably won’t lose your hair.
Specific radiation therapy side effects vary depending on where you receive radiation. But overall, some of the more common include:
- Skin reactions. During treatment, your skin around the area receiving radiation may become red or swollen. After a few weeks, skin may become dry, itchy, or flaky.
- Fatigue. A feeling of overall tiredness is fairly common.
- Radiation recall. Rarely, when a patient has certain types of chemotherapy along with or soon after radiation, a rash that resembles a severe sunburn may develop at the radiation site.
Most side effects will go away when treatment is completed.
Site-specific side effects
Head and neck: Nausea, headaches, difficulty swallowing, mouth sores or swelling
Chest: Difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, breast or nipple soreness, shoulder stiffness
Stomach and abdomen: Nausea and vomiting, diarrhea
Pelvic area: Diarrhea, rectal bleeding, incontinence, or bladder irritation
In addition, men and women may experience different side effects such as sexual dysfunction in men or disruptions in the menstrual cycle in women. Women should not become pregnant during radiation treatment because it may harm the unborn child.
Coping with radiation therapy side effects
The American Cancer Society offers the following advice to help ease discomfort:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Eat healthy. Depending on the part of your body getting radiation, your care team may suggest changes in your diet.
- Tell your care team about all medicines you’re taking. Be sure to include aspirin, vitamins, or herbs and things you take only as needed, such as sleep aids, antacids, headache remedies, and antihistamines.
To care for your skin in the treatment area:
- Don’t wear elastic, or clothing that is tight or made of rough fabric.
- Don’t rub or scratch the treated area.
- Don’t put heat or cold —such as a heating pad or ice pack — on the treatment area without talking to your care team first. Even hot water may hurt, so showering in lukewarm water may be best.
- Do cover the treated area when you’re outside. Ask your cancer care team about using sunscreen, and if they advise it, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, and re-apply it often. Continue to protect your skin from sunlight, even after your treatment ends.
- Don’t shave the treated area until you’ve checked with your cancer care team.
- Do ask your cancer care team before using anything — including lotions, powders, perfumes, and deodorant — on your skin in the treatment area. Many skin products can leave a coating on the skin that can cause irritation, and some may even affect the dose of radiation that enters the body.