How Will I Feel After Radiation Therapy?
Our recent blog article titled “How Will I Feel After Chemotherapy?” left some of our readers wondering if we would follow up with a similar article on radiation therapy. Well, you’ve read our minds.
Like with chemotherapy, radiation therapy is a scary proposition. It can immediately bring to mind many negative thoughts and, frankly, just as many misguided notions. Here’s the truth about radiation therapy and the side effects you might experience.
Simply put, radiation therapy is the targeted use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. The radiation can come from a few different sources. It can come from a highly calibrated machine outside your body, from radioactive materials injected into your blood stream, or from radiation placed inside the body near your tumor cells. The type of radiation therapy prescribed depends on the type and size of the cancer, as well as where the cancer is located (among other factors).
Unfortunately, radiation treatment damages healthy cells too. That’s why patients undergoing a radiotherapy procedure can experience side effects.
Symptoms vary from patient to patient. And not all patients experience side effects. Your own symptoms will be related to the dosage you receive (the higher the dose, the more apt you are to have side effects) and the part of your body being treated. In fact, when receiving radiation, your side effect symptoms generally will be related to the are being treated. So for example, if your head is being treated, then any side effects likely will occur in that area, not your stomach or other body part. And if your stomach is being treated, then your side effects likely will occur in your abdominal area.
If you do incur ill side effects, there are ways to feel better. But the best way to reduce your side effects is to first become aware of them — learn what side effects may occur and how to prevent or alleviate them.
Fatigue is the most common symptom associated with radiation therapy. It usually increases until about half-way through treatment and stays at about that level until treatment is completed. But while some patients may feel fatigued for months after therapy, many see improvement almost immediately after therapy stops.
Nausea, with or without vomiting, is another possible side effect. But again, not everyone experiences this. For example, radiation treatment to the breast area and lymph nodes for early-stage breast cancer usually doesn’t cause nausea or vomiting. Although it might in advanced-stage breast cancer where other parts of the body are affected.
The risk for nausea goes up as the dose of radiation and the size of the area being treated increase. Also, if you’re having chemotherapy at the same time as radiation, know that certain chemotherapy medicines may cause nausea and vomiting.
For patients undergoing treatment near the head or neck, painful or labored swallowing is a common side effect. Radiation can affect salivary glands, causing dry mouth and a decreased sense of taste. Most side effects like these go away within a few weeks, but they can be prolonged and in some cases may not go away.
Whether or not you have a skin reaction depends on your own type of skin and the area being treated. If you get a skin reaction it will be red (or darker in dark-skinned people). It can also be sore, like a sunburn, and even peel. But skin reactions usually settle down two to four weeks after treatment is completed.
So how you can ease the annoyance, irritation, and sometimes pain of these side effects? Prepare your body ahead of time.
As soon as you learn that you’ll be receiving radiation therapy, begin learning all you can and treat your body with great care. These may sound trite, but they’re incredibly important: get plenty of rest, eat a well-balanced diet, and take special care of your skin in the any areas to be treated. Make these routine practices throughout your treatment and beyond.
And talk openly with your OHC radiologist or Advanced Practice Provider (APP). They will recommend the practices and treatments necessary to relieve most, if not all, of your symptoms. They may even change your treatment schedule in an effort to lessen your discomfort.
Here are two other useful links:
American Cancer Society Radiation Treatments and Side Effects
American Cancer Society’s Radiation Therapy Side Effects Worksheet
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