Dealing with the Side Effects of Radiotherapy or Radiation Therapy

Even though we have made a lot of advancements in the field of cancer treatment, being diagnosed with the big C is still very unnerving.

In some people, the disease goes unnoticed until it is too late and treatment is no longer an option. But for others, who are diagnosed at an early stage, radiation therapy may be one of the treatment strategies suggested by their team of physicians.

While radiation therapy or radiotherapy is usually successful in shrinking the size of the tumor and burning the cancer cells in the region, it often has some severe side effects.

Radiation Therapy and Its Side Effects

There are two types of radiation therapy:

  • External beam therapy: Uses a specialized machine that sends focused beams to the exact location of the tumor and is usually used for localized treatment
  • Internal radiation therapy: Uses a solid or liquid form of radiation, which is introduced into the body

Common side effects of radiation:

The common side effects associated with radiation include fatigue, irritation at the site, sunburn-like discoloration of the skin, ulcers and other symptoms depending on the location and the person’s overall health.

These side effects are usually categorized as early effects, which occur during the treatment, or as late effects, occurring soon after the treatment or those that develop months or sometimes even years after the treatment.

  • Fatigue:

One of the most common side effects of radiotherapy, fatigue comprises overall physical and mental tiredness. Radiation therapy usually happens on a daily basis and can increase fatigue, usually a few weeks into the treatment.

  • Irritated skin:

The treatment mostly involves sending high-intensity rays to a localized point and this can often cause irritation and a sunburn-like effect, depending on the location. The impacted area may often become red, dry and discolored. Mouth ulcers may occur due to radiation in the oral cavity. Topical ointments and other medications may be prescribed depending on the severity of the reaction.

  • Hair loss:

The areas receiving radiation often experience localized hair loss. Depending on the location, the hair may grow back or the loss can sometimes be irreversible too. Men, for instance, lose the ability to grow a beard after they receive radiation to the face.

Some symptoms of radiation that are specific to the areas being treated include:

  • Dry mouth, oral sores, impaired saliva production, difficulty swallowing and lymphedema due to radiation to the head and neck area
  • Stiff shoulder, cough, fever and shortness of breath owing to radiation to the chest
  • Nausea, diarrhea and vomiting due to radiation to the stomach area
  • Rectal bleeding, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, changes in menstruation, etc., because of radiation to the pelvic region

Self-Care Tips to Follow During Radiation Treatment

  • Eat a balanced diet and try to get the optimum amount of nutrition required to sustain through the treatment sessions. While it might be difficult to eat when receiving radiation to the head and neck region, doctors might have alternatives like high-calorie liquids that can provide the required calories.
  • Get ample rest because radiation and other treatments that you undergo simultaneously can take a toll on physical and mental health.
  • Care for the area that is getting radiated because the skin can be irritated and sore. Make sure you don’t rub on it, shower with hot water or wear tight clothes that can further harm the skin.
  • While fatigue may be severe in most cases, depending on the dosage of radiation, it is important to try and get some exercise even if it is a short walk around your home.

Dealing With the Side Effects of Radiotherapy or Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, regardless of the dose and the region being treated, can be very exhausting. So, make sure you talk to your health care providers to understand the consequences of undergoing radiation and learn how to cope with your specific symptoms effectively.


References

Radiation Therapy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy#TRT

Schlembach, P. J., & M. (n.d.). Radiation therapy side effects: 5 tips to cope. Retrieved from https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/cancerwise/2017/10/radiation-therapy-side-effects-5-tips-to-cope.html