Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: A Guide for Patients and Families

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) uses an invisible ray or beam of high-energy particles to kill cancer cells. It is aimed at the cancer area using marks on the skin so that the beam can be directed only to the cancer site. Sometimes, small radioactive pellets, ribbons, or wires may be put into a tumor. Radiation can shrink tumors and relieve symptoms. Some cancers can be cured with radiation treatment (Hodgkin disease, for instance). Other cancers (such as breast cancers) can now be treated with radiation to allow for less surgery.

Doctors do not expose people who are not ill to radiation treatment because it could cause problems for some. But the benefit to people with cancer far outweighs the small risk of causing new problems. In order not to expose the people you care about to radiation, friends and relatives cannot be with you during the treatment itself. During external beam radiation treatments, you will be in a radiation therapy room by yourself. Technologists will watch you on a TV monitor in a room close by. They can talk to you and hear you if you need anything during the actual treatment.

The side effects of radiation depend on the area of the body that needs to be treated. Because it treats only a certain area of the body, side effects from radiation tend to involve only that area. It is common for the skin that the radiation goes through to get red during treatment. It usually stays that way for 3 or 4 weeks after radiation treatments are finished. The skin may dry and flake, or peel and ooze like a burn. Afterward, the skin may look darker or more tan for a few months or even for years.

With today's modern equipment and skilled ability to aim the beams or carefully place the pellets or wires, the radiation dose is focused on the tumor. That way, other areas of the body do not suffer so many ill effects. For instance, if the chest is treated, there is no loss of scalp hair and usually no nausea or vomiting. On the other hand, if the brain requires treatment, hair loss is expected. The patient may also have nausea and vomiting because there is a "nausea center" in the brain. Talk with your radiation oncologist (doctor trained to give radiation therapy) or oncology nurse about what side effects to expect.

What the patient can do

  • Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking, including all over-the-counter medicines or supplements, such as vitamins and herbs.
  • Go to every scheduled therapy appointment.
  • Ask questions. Your radiation treatment team is there to help you.
  • If you have nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, diarrhea, or fatigue, see the related sections in this booklet and tell your doctor or nurse.
  • Sometimes, small tattoos are made on your skin to help aim the radiation. But if the area to be treated is only marked in ink, take sponge baths instead of regular baths or showers to keep the markings in place. Ask your radiation team if and when you can wash off the ink.
  • Protect the treated area from direct sunlight during treatment and for at least 1 year after.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing over the radiated area. Soft cotton clothing is preferred.
  • Talk with the nurse or doctor about using skin creams, powder, deodorant, or make-up on the radiated skin. Avoid adhesive tape, hot or cold packs, and anything that dries or irritates skin.
  • Bathe in lukewarm water, using mild soap.
  • Avoid crowds, and don't visit with people who have colds, infections, coughs, or fevers while you are in treatment.
  • See the section on blood counts if your hemoglobin, platelet, or white blood cell counts are low.
  • Use birth control during radiation treatment and for 3 months afterward. (See the section in this booklet on sexuality).
  • If the area that is being treated is in the pelvis (such as bladder, prostate, vagina, cervix, or uterus), talk with your doctor or nurse about sexual side effects and what you can do. (See the section in his booklet on sexuality.)
  • If you notice skin blisters or oozing, you may need special dressings to protect the area of skin where you received radiation. Talk to your doctor or nurse about this.

What caregivers can do

  • Watch for fatigue, which may increase as radiation treatment continues.
  • Encourage the patient to eat nutritious foods and drink enough liquids. The patient may need help preparing meals, especially later in treatment.
  • Help the patient keep all appointments. Radiation treatment is often given every day for many weeks. You may need to get friends to drive the patient.
  • Encourage friends with infections to visit only by phone until they are completely well.
  • If the patient develops side effects or other symptoms, see the related sections in this booklet.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Develops bloody, weeping (wet), or discolored skin
  • Has a fever of 100.5° F or more when taken by mouth
  • Has pain
  • Has questions or hears things about radiation therapy that cause concern

For more in-depth information, contact the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 and ask for Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families. You can also find information on the Web at cancer.org.


Last Medical Review: 11/12/2009
Last Revised: 11/12/2009