Caring for a Loved One During Radiation Treatment

woman with husband's hand on her shoulder

When a loved one is facing radiation treatment for their cancer, they may need to rely on a caregiver for help with everything from cooking and cleaning to nursing and medicine management. So, as the caregiver, how do you know what to do? Below we answer a few of the questions you might have about caring for someone during radiation treatment. Knowing this information – and how to find more answers when you need them – can make your job as a caregiver a bit less stressful.

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What are some common side effects of radiation? How do I handle them?

Radiation treatment is often targeted at one specific area of the body, so side effects can vary depending on the body part being treated. However, many people undergoing radiation tend to experience fatigue or skin problems.

  • If your loved one has fatigue, they will feel very physically, mentally, and emotionally tired. Help them balance rest and physical activities. Talk to their doctor about whether it's OK for them to exercise to help combat their fatigue. Encourage them to do what they can when they can, and offer help if they need it.
  • If your loved one is having skin problems, try not to rub, scratch, or use adhesive bandages or tape on their treatment area. Avoid using harsh laundry detergents and other products with fragrances that might dry or irritate the skin. Remind them, too, to protect the area from the sun both during and after treatment, but ask the doctor if it's OK to use sunscreen. If it's not, use dark-colored or UV-protective clothing to cover the affected area, if possible.

If you notice that the person you're caring for is having a hard time with side effects or if the side effects are getting worse, keep track of what's happening and talk about it with their doctor.

Does this person need any kind of special food or drink during treatment?

People undergoing radiation to the head, neck, or stomach area may have trouble with nutrition because they feel nauseated or too fatigued to eat and drink. As a caregiver, it may help to offer them smaller meals or snacks throughout the day and encourage them to stay hydrated. They may also have other side effects, such as mouth soreness and diarrhea, that keep them from eating well. You can learn more about handling issues like this in our Guide to Caring for the Cancer Patient at Home, or you can ask your loved one's care team for help with these concerns.

Should I take precautions to make sure the radiation they receive during treatment isn't harmful to me?

Patients receiving external radiation therapy are only exposed to radiation during treatment itself. But there are two types of radiation treatment that could pose a risk of radiation exposure to you as a caregiver.

Internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, involves putting a radioactive implant inside a person's body. Systemic radiation is done by giving a dose of radioactive medicine that travels through the body. If the person you're caring for is undergoing one of these treatments, there may be some precautions you need to follow to protect yourself. You may need to avoid physical contact with your loved one for a while, or limit the time you spend very close to them. In the case of systemic therapy, you may also have to avoid the person's bodily fluids for a few days after treatment.

Talk to your care team so you understand exactly what you should and should not do as a caregiver when treatment is under way.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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