Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Taking care of yourself during radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can damage healthy body tissues in or near the area being treated, which can cause side effects. Many people worry about this part of their cancer treatment. Before treatment, talk with your cancer care team about what you might expect.

You need to take special care of yourself to protect your health during radiation treatment. Your cancer care team will give you advice based on your treatment plan and the side effects you might have.

Here are some general tips:

  • Be sure to get plenty of rest. You may feel more tired than normal. Try to get good, restful sleep at night. Severe tiredness, called fatigue (fuh-TEEG), may last for several weeks after your treatment ends. See “Fatigue” in the “Common side effects of radiation therapy” section for more information.
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet. Depending on the part of your body getting radiation, your cancer care team may suggest changes in your diet. You can learn more about eating well in our booklet Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families.
  • Tell your cancer care team about all medicines and supplements you are taking. Give your team a full list of everything you take and how often you take it, even things like aspirin, vitamins, or herbs. Don’t forget those you take only when you need them, such as sleep aids, antacids, headache remedies, and antihistamines.
  • Take care of the skin in the treatment area. If you get external radiation therapy, the skin in the treatment area may become more sensitive or look and feel sunburned. Ask your cancer care team before using any soaps, lotions, deodorants, medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, powder, or anything else on the treated area. Some of these products may irritate sensitive skin. See “Skin problems” in the “Common side effects of radiation therapy” section for more on this.

How will I feel emotionally?

Many patients feel tired during radiation therapy, and this can affect emotions. You also might feel depressed, afraid, angry, frustrated, alone, or helpless.

We have a lot of information that can help you understand and manage the emotional changes that often come with cancer and cancer treatment. You can read more on our website, www.cancer.org, or you can call us to have free information sent to you.

Getting involved with a support group and meeting other people with cancer may help you. Ask your cancer care team or call the American Cancer Society to learn more about ways to connect with others who share your problems and concerns.

Will side effects limit my activity?

Side effects might limit your ability to do some things. But what you can do will depend on how you feel. Talk to your cancer care team about this. Some patients are able to go to work or enjoy leisure activities while they get radiation therapy. Others find they need more rest than usual and can’t do as much. Your team may suggest you limit activities that might irritate the area being treated.

Side effects can vary.

Your cancer care team can tell you about your treatment, likely side effects, and things you need to do to take care of yourself. They can also talk to you about any other medical concerns you have. Tell them about any changes in the way you feel and any side effects you have, including skin changes, tiredness, diarrhea, or trouble eating. Be sure that you understand any home care instructions and know whom to call if you have more questions. Also be sure you know what to do if you need help after office hours, in case you have problems at night or on the weekend.

Side effects vary from person to person and depend on the radiation dose, the part of the body being treated, and other factors. Some people have no side effects at all, while others have quite a few. There’s no way to know who might have side effects.

How long do side effects last?

Radiation therapy can cause early and late side effects.

  • Early side effects are those that happen during or shortly after treatment. They’re usually gone within a few weeks after treatment ends.
  • Late side effects can take months or even years to develop. They’re often (but not always) permanent.

The most common early side effects are fatigue (feeling tired) and skin changes. Other early side effects usually are related to the area being treated, such as hair loss and mouth problems when radiation treatment is given to the head.

Most side effects go away in time. In the meantime, there are ways to reduce the discomfort they may cause. 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’re getting. Tell your cancer care team about any side effects you notice so they can help you with them. The information here can serve as a guide to handling some side effects, but it can’t replace talking with your team about what’s happening to you.

People often become discouraged about how long their treatment lasts or the side effects they have. If you feel this way, talk to your cancer care team. If needed, they should be able to suggest ways to help you feel better.

Radioprotective drugs

Doctors look for ways to reduce side effects caused by radiation therapy while still using the doses needed to kill cancer cells. One way to reduce side effects is by using radioprotective (RAY-dee-o pro-TEK-tiv) drugs. These are drugs that are given before radiation treatment to protect certain normal tissues in the treatment area. The one most commonly used today is amifostine. This drug may be used in people with head and neck cancer to reduce the mouth problems caused by radiation therapy.

Radioprotective drugs are an active area of research. At this time not all doctors agree how these drugs should be used in radiation therapy. These drugs have their own side effects, too, so be sure you understand what to look for.

Last Medical Review: 06/30/2015
Last Revised: 06/30/2015