Radiation Therapy -- What It Is, How It Helps

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What about radiation side effects?

Some people have no side effects at all, while others do. The most common side effects are:

  • Feeling very tired (fatigue [fuh-teeg])
  • Skin changes
  • Not wanting to eat (appetite loss)

Other side effects depend on the part of the body being treated. For instance, if you get radiation to your head, you might have hair loss. Or if you get radiation to your chest, you might have a cough or sore throat.

Most side effects go away in time. But there are ways to help you feel better. If you have bad side effects, the doctor may stop your treatments for a while, change the schedule, or change the type of treatment you are getting. Tell your doctor, nurse, or radiation therapist about any side effects you have so they can help you with them.

Now we will talk about a few of the more common side effects.

How do I deal with fatigue?

Fatigue (fuh-teeg) means you feel very tired. It can last for a long time and keep you from doing the things you want and need to do. It’s not like the fatigue a person feels at the end of a long, hard day. That kind gets better after a good night’s sleep. The fatigue caused by cancer and/or cancer treatment is worse and causes more problems. Rest does not always make it go away.

Cancer fatigue is very common. By knowing about fatigue, you can cope with it better. No lab tests or x-rays can show fatigue or tell how bad it is for you. Only you know if you have fatigue and how bad it is.

If you have fatigue, be sure to tell your doctor or nurse. You can say it’s mild, moderate, or severe. Or, you can use a scale from 0 to 10. A 0 means you have no fatigue, and a 10 means you have the worst fatigue ever.

This weak or weary feeling will go away over time after your treatment ends. Until then there are some things you can do to help reduce your fatigue:

  • Do the things that you need to get done when you feel your best.
  • Ask for help, and let people help you.
  • Put things that you use often within easy reach.
  • Set up a daily routine.
  • Try to relax to reduce stress. Many people feel better with deep breathing, prayer, talking with others, reading, listening to music, and painting, among other things.
  • Balance rest and activity. Don’t spend too much time in bed, which can make you weak. Don’t let rest or daytime naps keep you from sleeping at night. A few short rest breaks are better than one long one.
  • Talk to your doctor about how to keep your pain and nausea – if you have these – under control.
  • Depression can make you feel more tired. Talk with your doctor about treatment if you think you may be depressed. Feeling sad or worthless, losing interest in life, thinking about death a lot, or thinking of hurting yourself are some signs of depression.
  • Get some exercise each day. Talk to your doctor before you start.
  • You may be told to eat a special way. If so, try to do it. It’s good to eat a healthy diet that includes protein (meat, milk, eggs, and beans). It’s also good to drink about 8 to 10 glasses of water a day.

Let your doctor or nurse know about your fatigue and talk with them if:

  • It doesn’t get better, keeps coming back, or gets worse.
  • You are more tired than usual during or after an activity.
  • Your fatigue doesn’t get better with rest or sleep.
  • You become confused or can’t think.
  • You can’t get out of bed for more than 24 hours.
  • You can’t do the things you need or want to do.

What can I do about skin changes?

Skin over the part of your body being treated may look red, swollen, blistered, sunburned, or tanned. After a few weeks, your skin may become dry, flaky, itchy, or it may peel. Be sure to let your doctor, nurse, or radiation therapist know about any skin changes. They can suggest ways to ease the discomfort, help keep it from getting worse, and try to prevent infection.

Most skin changes slowly go away after treatment ends. In some cases, though, the treated skin will stay darker and might be more sensitive than it was before. You need to be gentle with your skin. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Wear loose clothes made from soft, smooth fabrics.
  • Do not rub, scrub, scratch, or use adhesive tape on treated skin. If your skin must be covered or bandaged, use paper tape or other tape for sensitive skin. Try to put the tape outside the treatment area, and don’t put the tape in the same place each time.
  • Do not put heat or cold (such as a heating pad, heat lamp, or ice pack) on the treated skin. Talk with your doctor first.
  • Protect the treated area from the sun. It may be extra sensitive to sunlight. Protect your skin from sunlight even after radiation therapy ends. Wear clothes that cover the skin, or use sunscreen.
  • Use only lukewarm water and mild soap. Just let water run over the treated area. Do not rub. Also be careful not to rub away the ink marks needed for your radiation therapy until it’s done.
  • Do not use a pre-shave or after-shave lotion or hair-removal products. Use an electric shaver if you must shave the area, but first check with your doctor or nurse.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse before using anything on the skin in the treatment area. This includes powders, creams, perfumes, deodorants, body oils, ointments, lotions, or home remedies while you are being treated and for several weeks afterward.

Will I have eating problems?

You may not feel like eating during your treatment. Eating may be more of a problem if you’re getting radiation to your stomach or chest. Even if you don’t feel like eating, you should try to eat foods high in protein and calories.

Doctors have found that patients who eat well can better handle cancer treatment and side effects. There are many recipe books for patients who need help with eating problems. Ask your nurse about these.

If you have trouble swallowing, tell your doctor or nurse. If you have pain when you chew and swallow, you may be told to try a liquid diet. Liquid nutrition drinks come in many flavors. You can buy them at grocery stores and drugstores, or you can make them yourself. They can be mixed with other foods or added to milk shakes.

Here are some tips to help when you don’t feel like eating:

  • Eat when you are hungry, even if it’s not mealtime.
  • Eat 5 or 6 small meals during the day rather than 2 or 3 large ones.
  • Try to eat with family or friends, or turn on the TV or radio.
  • If you drink alcohol, ask your doctor if it’s OK during treatment. Ask if alcohol will affect any medicines you are taking.
  • Keep healthy snacks close by.
  • If others offer to cook for you, let them. Don’t be shy about telling them what you want to eat.
  • Add calories to your diet by drinking milk shakes or liquid supplements, adding cream sauce or melted cheese to vegetables, and mixing canned cream soups with milk or half-and-half (half milk and half cream) instead of water.

Will my emotions be affected?

You may feel tired from the radiation therapy, and this can affect your emotions. You also might feel depressed, afraid, angry, alone, or helpless. Talking to others sometimes helps.

One way to meet other people with cancer is to go to a support group. These groups often meet at local cancer treatment centers. Ask your doctor or nurse or call the American Cancer Society to find out how you can meet with or talk to others who share your problems and concerns.

Will I have pain?

Radiation therapy isn’t painful, but some of the side effects it causes can be. For instance, if you are getting radiation to the head and neck area, you might have a sore throat, trouble swallowing, or mouth sores. These can hurt.

If you have a tumor that’s causing pain, radiation can shrink the tumor and help relieve that pain.

If you have any pain, talk to your doctor or nurse. Describe your pain and where it is in as much detail as you can. This will help your doctor know how best to help you with your pain.

Pain is not part of cancer treatment. Get help if you have pain.


Last Medical Review: 06/17/2014
Last Revised: 06/17/2014