Managing radiation therapy side effects
Radiation therapy can treat 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 likely benefits outweigh the possible side effects. To minimise side effects, a range of new techniques have made radiation therapy highly precise.
This section provides information and tips to help you manage some common side effects of radiation therapy. These include fatigue, skin problems, hair loss, appetite loss, nausea, mouth and throat problems, bowel and bladder problems, and infertility.
Learn more about:
- Preparing for side effects
- Trying complementary therapies
- How long side effects may last
- Skin changes
- Hair loss
- Appetite loss and nausea
- Mouth and throat problems
- Bowel changes
- Bladder changes
- Sexuality, intimacy and fertility issues
- Effects on sexual function and fertility
Some people experience many side effects, while others have very few or none. Side effects can vary even among people having 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
- your general health.
Most side effects that occur during treatment are manageable. Before treatment begins, your radiation therapy team will discuss how to look after the treatment area, the side effects to watch out for or report, ways to manage them, and who to contact after hours if you need help.
If the side effects are severe, the radiation oncologist may change the treatment schedule or arrange a break. They may not recommend these options if it would affect how well the treatment works.
It is important to maintain your general health during treatment. People who have diabetes need to manage their blood sugar levels to keep them healthy during treatment and recovery – see your GP before treatment starts.
Trying complementary therapies
Complementary therapies are designed to be used along with conventional medical treatments. Therapies such as relaxation and mindful meditation can reduce anxiety and improve your mood.
Let your radiation oncologist know about any complementary therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some may not be safe. This includes over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and creams, which may affect the way radiation therapy works or make side effects worse. You may also need to avoid massaging the treatment area.
For more on this, see Complementary therapies.
Podcast: Meditation and Relaxation
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Prof June Corry, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Prof Bryan Burmeister, Senior Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare Fraser Coast, Hervey Bay Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD; Sandra Donaldson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Jane Freeman, Accredited Practising Dietitian (Cancer specialist), Canutrition, NSW; Sinead Hanley, Consumer; David Jolly, Senior Medical Physicist, Icon Cancer Centre Richmond, VIC; Christine Kitto, Consumer; A/Prof Grace Kong, Nuclear Medicine Physician, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Sasha Senthi, Radiation Oncologist, The Alfred Hospital and Monash University, VIC; John Spurr, Consumer; Chris Twyford, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Radiation Oncology, Cancer Rapid Assessment Unit and Outpatients, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Gabrielle Vigar, Nurse Unit Manager, Radiation Oncology/Cancer Outpatients, Cancer Program, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA.
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