Managing radiation therapy side effects

Radiation therapy is an effective treatment for many cancers, but it can also injure healthy cells at or near the treatment area. This can lead to side effects. Before recommending any treatment, the radiation oncologist will consider whether the potential benefits outweigh the possible side effects. To minimise side effects, a range of new techniques have made radiation therapy highly precise.

Some people experience many side effects, while others have very few or none. Side effects can be different even with the same type of radiation therapy to the same part of the body. Many factors can affect the type and severity of side effects, including: the part of the body treated; the type of radiation therapy; the dose of radiation needed; any other treatments you might be having; and your general health. If you have severe side effects, the radiation oncologist may change the treatment or prescribe a break, but will advise against this if it would affect how well the treatment works.

It is important to maintain your general health during treatment. People with diabetes in particular should ensure the condition is well managed as it can interfere with effective healing – see your general practitioner (GP) before treatment starts.

Your treatment team can suggest ways to ease side effects. Check with your radiation oncologist before using any over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, creams or other therapies, as some may affect the way radiation therapy works or make side effects worse.

Learn more about:

Common side effects

The side effects of radiation therapy often relate to the type of cancer and the part of the body treated, so it can be useful to read about the type of cancer you have. Or you can call 13 11 20 to learn more.

This table lists some common side effects of radiation therapy but you are unlikely to experience all of them.

  Short-term side effects Long-term or late side effects
Skin problems  
Appetite loss  
Mouth and throat problems  
Bladder problems
Bowel problems
Hair loss  
Tissue hardening
Sexuality and
intimacy issues

How long will side effects last?

Radiation therapy can cause side effects during and just after treatment – these are called short-term or acute effects. It can also cause long-term or late effects months or years down the track.

Short-term side effects

For short courses of treatment lasting 1–5 days, you may notice side effects from the first day of treatment. For longer courses, side effects often build up gradually during treatment and it could be a few weeks before you notice anything. Often the full impact comes at the end of treatment or even a week or two afterwards.

During treatment, tell your radiation oncology team about any side effects, as they can usually be controlled with the right care and medicine. Most side effects are temporary and go away in time, usually within days to weeks of treatment finishing.

Long-term or late effects

Radiation therapy can also cause effects months or years after treatment. These late effects are usually mild, they may come and go, and they may not have any major impact on your daily life. However, they may be more significant. Some may go away or improve on their own, while others may be permanent and need to be treated or managed.

Very rarely, years after successful treatment, patients can develop a new unrelated cancer in or near the area treated. The risk of this late effect is very low, but other factors, such as continuing to smoke or very rare genetic conditions, can increase this risk.

This information was last reviewed in December 2017
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