Understanding Radiation Therapy

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Preventing and managing side effects

When the radiation damages nearby healthy tissue, it causes side effects. Many people worry about this part of their cancer treatment. Before treatment, talk with your doctor or nurse about what you might expect.

Radioprotective drugs

Doctors look for ways to reduce side effects caused by radiation therapy, but still use 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 radioprotective 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, and 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.

What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?

You need to take special care of yourself to protect your health during radiation treatment. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice based on your treatment plan and the side effects you might have. Here are some other 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, may last for several weeks after your treatment ends. See the “Fatigue” section for more information.
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet. Depending on the area of your body getting radiation (for example, the belly or pelvic area), your doctor or nurse may suggest changes in your diet. You can get more information in our booklet called Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families.
  • 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 doctor or nurse 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 the “Skin problems” section for more information.
  • Do not wear tight, rough-textured, or stiff clothes over the treatment area. This includes anything tight or elastic that squeezes the area. Instead, wear loose clothing made from soft, smooth fabrics. Do not starch your clothes.
  • Do not rub, scrub, 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 do not 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 treatment area. Talk with your doctor first. Even hot water may hurt your skin, so use only lukewarm water for washing the treated area.
  • Protect the treated area from the sun. Your skin may be extra sensitive to sunlight. If possible, cover the treated skin with dark-colored or UV-protective clothing before going outside. Ask your doctor if you should use sunscreen. If so, use one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Reapply the sunscreen often. Continue to give your skin extra protection from sunlight for at least a year after radiation therapy.
  • Tell your doctor about all medicines you are taking. Give your doctor a full list of everything you take and how often you take it, even things like aspirin, vitamins, or herbs. Don’t forget to list those you take only when you need them, such as sleep aids, antacids, headache remedies, and antihistamines. It’s a good idea to keep a list like this with you at all times, in case of emergency, even when you aren’t getting cancer treatment.

Side effects can vary.

Your doctor and nurse are the best people to talk to about your treatment, side effects, things you need to do to take care of yourself, and any other medical concerns you may have. Tell them about any changes in the way you feel and about any side effects you have, including skin changes, tiredness (fatigue), diarrhea, or trouble eating. Be sure that you understand any home care instructions and know whom to call if you have more questions.

Side effects vary from person to person and depend on the radiation dose and the part of the body being treated. Some patients have no side effects at all, while others have quite a few. There’s no way to know who might have side effects. Your overall health can sometimes affect how your body reacts to radiation treatment and whether you 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 usually are gone within a few weeks after treatment ends. Late side effects are those that take months or years to develop. They are often 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 are getting. Tell your doctor, nurse, or radiation therapist 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 doctor or nurse 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 doctor. If needed, your doctor should be able to suggest ways to help you feel better.

Common side effects

Last Medical Review: 01/24/2013
Last Revised: 01/24/2013