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Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

What the Side Effects Are and How to Manage Them

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Updated May 27, 2014

Side effects of radiation vary from person to person. It all depends on how often treatment is given and a few other factors.

Common Side Effects

The three most commonly experienced side effects of radiation therapy are:

Fatigue: All people undergoing radiation therapy experience some degree of fatigue during treatment. Fatigue is a general feeling of being extremely tired. This is the time when you should rely on your support system to help with chores, errands, child care and other tasks. Short naps throughout the day and getting uninterrupted sleep at night really make a difference in your energy level.
Skin Problems: The skin that has been exposed to treatment may appear red, sunburned, tan or irritated. The skin is sensitive and should be treated as so. You can request special creams/gels from your doctor or oncology nurse (there is one called Radiagel, for example). Patients should avoid perfumes or scented body lotions, tight-fitting clothing, and exposing the area to sun (during treatment and for at least one year after). Problems with the skin will go away after treatment ends.
Loss of Appetite: Loss of appetite can lead to fatigue and nutritional deficiencies. It isimportant to keep up strength during any cancer treatment and food is one of the best resources to do that. Smaller meals throughout the day instead of three square meals helps. Eating foods rich in vitamins like fruits and veggies are essential. Appetite will increase as treatment ends. For patients undergoing treatment for head or neck cancer (and sometimes lung), lack of saliva can be a side effect. There are special treatments for this problem -- talk to your doctor.

Other Radiation Side Effects

This depends on what type of cancer you have and where you receive treatment on your body. Possible side effects include:

Hair Loss: Hair loss only occurs at the site which is being treated. If you are having radiation therapy on your pelvis, you will not lose hair on your head. But, if you are having treatment for head and neck cancer, there is a good chance you will experience hair loss.

The good news is that in most cases, hair does grow back after treatment.

Decreases in Blood Count: Radiation can cause the lowering of white blood cells and platelets. This can lead to lowered immunity to viruses and bacteria because the white blood cells are what fights off these attackers. Tests will be done on a regular basis to check blood counts and treatment may be altered depending on the results.

While side effects do vary with treatment, where the radiation is being directed will produce different side effects. For instance, treatment to the pelvis may cause fertility problems, and treatment to the head and neck can produce dental problems like cavities.

It is important to ask your physician what side effects are anticipated and how they can be prevented or managed.
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