Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

The side effects of radiation therapy, a common cancer treatment, vary from person to person and depend on how often treatment is given and a few other key factors. Find out more about some of the most common side effects.

patient getting radiotherapy
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The Most Common Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

The three most commonly experienced side effects of radiation therapy include:

  • Fatigue: All people who are undergoing radiation therapy experience some degree of fatigue during treatment. Fatigue is a general feeling of being extremely tired. This is the time when you should rely on your support system to help with chores, errands, child care, and other tasks. Don't try to overdo it – get as much rest as you can. Taking short naps throughout the day and getting uninterrupted sleep at night can really make a difference in your energy level.
  • Skin problems: The skin that has been exposed to treatment may appear red, sunburned, tan, or irritated. The skin is sensitive and should be treated as so. You can request special creams or gels from your doctor or oncology nurse (there is one called Radiagel, for example). Patients should avoid wearing perfumes, scented body lotions, or tight-fitting clothing to reduce irritation. Also, avoid exposing the area to the sun (both during this cancer treatment and for at least one year after). Any skin problems will likely go away after the cancer treatment ends.
  • Loss of appetite: A loss of appetite can lead to fatigue and nutritional deficiencies. It is important to keep up your strength during any cancer treatment and chowing down on good-for-you foods is one great way to do that. Having smaller meals throughout the day instead of three larger meals helps. Eating foods that are rich in vitamins like fruits and veggies is essential. Your appetite is likely to increase as treatment ends. For patients who are undergoing treatment for head or neck cancer (and sometimes lung cancer), a lack of saliva can be a side effect. There are special treatments for this particular problem, so talk to your doctor.

Other Possible Radiation Side Effects

Whether you are likely to experience additional side effects depends largely on what type of cancer you have and where you receive the cancer treatment on your body. Other side effects may include the following.

  • Hair loss: Hair loss occurs only at the site that is being treated. If you are having radiation therapy that's targeting your pelvis, for example, you will not lose hair on your head. But, if you are having treatment for head and neck cancer, for instance, there is a good chance that you will experience hair loss. The good news is that in most cases, hair does grow back after the cancer treatment.
  • Decreases in blood count: Radiation can cause a decrease in the number of white blood cells and platelets. This can lead to lower immunity against viruses and bacteria because the white blood cells are what fight off these attackers. Tests will be done on a regular basis to check blood counts and your cancer treatment may be altered, depending on the results of those tests.
  • Miscellaneous: There may be certain side effects that are specific to the area of the body that's receiving treatment. For example, radiation therapy that's directed at the pelvis may cause fertility problems, and radiation therapy in the head and neck region may produce dental problems like cavities.

As you can see, some side effects of radiation therapy are fairly universal, while others are more specific to the area of the body that's being treated. It is important to ask your oncologist what side effects he anticipates during cancer treatment and how they can be prevented or managed.

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