Side Effects of Radiation Therapy for Cancer

For those who have never had cancer or have never had someone close to them have this dreadful disease, it is hard to understand what radiation therapy is and how it is used to fight cancer. The National Cancer Institute describes radiation therapy as using high doses of radiation to stop the spread of and kill cancer cells. Anyone who has ever had an x-ray has been exposed to radiation, just at extremely low doses, whereas radiation therapy is at much higher doses.

There are many questions that come along when radiation therapy is mentioned, it can be given internally or externally. Almost all cancer patients can benefit from the use of radiation therapy and some require only radiation therapy as their cancer treatment. Unfortunately, radiation treatment can take days or weeks for any cancer cells to start dying off, but once they do the cells can continue dying off for months after the therapy was given.

Unfortunately, radiation treatment does not come without side effects for the patient. There are several forms that the side effects can take, but the most common are:  loss of appetite, hair loss, skin problems, and extreme fatigue.

There also may be other side effects related to where you are receiving the treatments, such as for the neck and head area where dry mouth is a known condition. Loss of appetite can occur for all patients receiving radiation treatments. The symptoms should recede as the treatments do but it is important to try to eat to maintain your strength and stamina during this hard time. If possible eat smaller amounts through-out the day, make sure to get as many vitamins as possible into your diet as this will help your system recover faster.

Hair loss is one obvious sign of radiation therapy, and will not happen to all cancer patients. If you feel exposed during this time, scarves and hats are popular tools to hide the hair loss until you feel confident to go without or your hair starts to re-grow.

Skin problems are an unfortunate side effect of treatments and will require some special handling while receiving treatments and afterwards for up to a year after treatments have stopped. The skin may become irritated and have the appearance of sunburn or just become red, but this will recede once treatments have stopped.  During treatments is a good time to avoid wearing any scented creams or lotions. Make sure to wear loose clothing and avoid sun exposure as much as possible even after treatments have stopped.

It is not uncommon for those receiving treatment to experience extreme fatigue and this is a great time to make use of family and friends or caregivers by allowing them to keep house, do laundry, or cook meals. This is a time when napping is a good thing and should be done as often as possible.

Radiation therapy is never an easy thing to go through, and a good support system is a useful tool at this time; encouraging others to understand what you may be going through at this time will be helpful to them as they will be better able to help you get through this horrible time.