Tumorous cancer cells are treated with high-energy radiation. The therapy is designed to focus treatment on cancer cells and limit exposure to healthy cells. However, there is always collateral damage to the surrounding tissue.
Radiation therapy side effects are inevitable, but everybody will respond differently to treatment, with no way to predict how any individual will react or the severity of their reaction.
Some people may experience only mild symptoms, while others feel quite ill.
What Are the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy?
Not only will radiation therapy side effects vary between individuals, but the type of cancer and the area of the body being treated can significantly alter the symptoms’ nature and severity. There are also two distinct types of side effects: early and late.
Early Radiation Therapy side effects
Nausea and fatigue can manifest quickly and dissipate just as fast. They can develop during or immediately after treatment and sometimes last for several weeks before subsiding.
Late Radiation Therapy side effects
Like lung or heart problems, it may not show up until years after the treatment has finished and can be permanent.
Both early and late side effects may include any of the following:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Difficult urination
- Dry mouth, pain, or sores
- Diarrhea, indigestion, vomiting, or nausea
- Hair loss around the area under treatment
- Changes in skin (red or sunburned skin)
- Pain in the area receiving treatment
Some adjustments in your life will be necessary when dealing with radiation therapy side effects. First, your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms to determine if your treatment is the cause.
Radiation therapy can affect your bone marrow’s capacity to produce red and white blood cells and platelets, showing up as low blood counts on a blood test.
The treatment provided for radiation therapy symptoms will depend on the area of the body receiving treatment. You may be given medicine to give you some relief from vomiting, indigestion, and diarrhea.
Your doctor may also prescribe treatments for symptoms developing in your mouth or if you are experiencing pain in the irradiated area.
For irritated skin, lotions and creams can help soothe and reduce inflammation. Some symptoms are not manageable with medication, but you can do things to help mitigate their severity.
Short bursts of physical activity will help you cope with fatigue. For example, walking or riding for 15 to 30 minutes will boost your overall energy levels. In addition, take short naps throughout the day, but keep them to under an hour each.
Loose-fitting clothing worn over the area receiving treatment will help keep skin irritation down to a minimum. Use mild soap and warm water when bathing, and avoid scratching. Be sure to apply sunscreen, wear a hat outside, and use ointments, lotions, and moisturizers as directed.
Always check with your healthcare professional before putting anything on your skin.
Your healthcare provider will inform you about any dietary considerations you need to be aware of during your treatment.
Otherwise, maintain a healthy, nutritious diet while avoiding acidic or spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine, as these may exacerbate your symptoms.
Ask your doctor how much and what you should be drinking each day. Radiation therapy can be dehydrating, so replacing lost fluids is vital. In some cases, an oral rehydration solution may be necessary, along with adequate water levels.
Your emotional and physical state will be tested during radiation therapy, so ensure you receive all the support you need to get you through this trying time, especially if you feel depressed, frustrated, scared, and helpless. A support group or talking with others who have been through the experience is highly recommended.
Radiation therapy is a great technique to target tissues without invasive procedures, such as surgery. Over time, this technique has become more efficient, and an entire medical subspecialty is dedicated to treating cancer patients with radiotherapy.