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 potential 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 may include fatigue, skin problems, appetite loss, nausea, mouth and throat problems, bladder and bowel problems, hair loss, and infertility.
Learn more about:
- Preparing for side effects
- Trying complementary therapies
- How long side effects may last
- Common side effects
- Skin problems
- Hair loss
- Appetite loss and nausea
- Mouth and throat problems
- Bowel problems
- Bladder problems
- Sexuality, intimacy and fertility issues
- Effects on fertility and sexual function
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 you have severe side effects, the radiation oncologist may change the treatment 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 condition so it doesn’t affect their recovery – see your GP before treatment starts.
Complementary therapies are designed to be used alongside conventional medical treatments. Therapies such as relaxation and mindful meditation can reduce anxiety and improve your mood.
Let your radiation oncologist know about any 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.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, and Dean, RANZCR Faculty of Radiation Oncology, QLD; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Patricia Hanley, Consumer; Prof Michael Hofman, Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging Physician, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Leanne Hoy, Cancer Nurse Consultant, GenesisCare, VIC; Sharon King, Accredited Practising Dietitian, TAS; Dr Yoo Young (Dominique) Lee, Radiation Oncology Consultant, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Dr Wendy Phillips, Senior Medical Physicist, Department of Radiation Oncology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Katrina Rech, Radiation Therapist and Quality Systems Manager, GenesisCare, SA. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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