Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

There are side effects from any cancer treatment. In general they are dramatically less than they were years ago. There are huge variations in side effects for radiation treatment. It depends on the individual patient, the size of the treatment area, the part of the body being treated, the type of cancer and any other illnesses the patient may have. Prior to beginning treatment, the Advanced ROS therapy team will discuss with you in detail any side effects you might experience.

Side effects from radiation therapy are very different from those associated with chemotherapy. Only the tissues exposed to radiation can be affected by the treatment. The tissues that are not exposed will not be affected.

The most common side effects of radiation therapy are fatigue and skin changes, which can result from external radiation treatment to any part of the body. Other side effects are very specific to the treatment site. Some people report no side effects at all. Most side effects are not serious, and many can be controlled with medication or diet.

The following summarizes the types of side effects that patients sometimes experience from external radiation treatments. Remember that every person is different. You may or may not have any of the reactions listed here.

Side effects common to all treatment areas
Side effects specific to the Breast
Side effects specific to the Chest
Side effects specific to the Abdomen
Side effects specific to the Pelvis
Side effects specific to the Head and Neck
Side effects specific to the Brain


Side effects common to all treatment areas

Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of radiation to any part of the body being treated. Some people begin to feel tired after a few weeks of therapy. Getting plenty of rest and pacing your activities will reduce stress and help your body cope with the treatment. If you feel up to it, exercise is recommended as long as you don’t overdo it. Feelings of weakness or weariness go away gradually after treatment has been completed. Infrequently, radiation therapy can cause anemia, which contributes to fatigue. Your blood counts may be checked to determine if you need to be treated for anemia.

Skin in any area treated with external radiation can become dry, red, tender and itchy. This reaction is a lot like a sunburn, or in the later stages of treatment, a suntan. The intensity of the reaction varies depending on the area treated and the total dose of radiation delivered. Areas of the body with curved surfaces, such as the jaw and neck, or folds under the breast, tend to have more severe reactions. People who have had chemotherapy may be more sensitive to skin reactions. Towards the end of the course of treatment, some skin areas may become moist and "weepy" (moist reaction). The majority of skin reactions go away a few weeks after treatment is completed. back to top

Breast

Patients receiving radiation treatment to the breast may experience skin changes in the treated area. During the course of radiation treatment, some women report unfamiliar sensations in the breast. Following radiation therapy, the treated breast may be firmer, larger due to fluid buildup, or smaller due to tissue changes. For some women, the skin of the breast is more sensitive after radiation treatment, while for others, it is less sensitive.back to top

Chest

Patients receiving radiation treatment to the chest area may experience skin changes in the treated area. They may have a sore throat and difficulty swallowing, or may develop a dry cough. Some patients experience indigestion while receiving treatment. After treatment is completed, some patients may experience symptoms due to inflammation of the lung, such as cough, fever or shortness of breath. Radiation treatment can decrease the number of blood cells, so blood counts are monitored before, during and after therapy. back to top

Abdomen

Patients receiving radiation treatment to the abdominal area (for kidney, stomach, pancreatic and some colorectal cancers) may experience skin changes. There may be a permanent darkening of the skin or hair loss in the treated area. Patients may experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, all of which can be controlled with medication. Some patients experience indigestion while receiving treatment. In women, menstrual periods stop after radiation treatment to the abdomen. Radiation treatment can decrease the number of blood cells, so blood counts are monitored before, during and after therapy. back to top

Pelvis

Patients receiving radiation treatment to the pelvic area (for gynecologic, prostate, bladder and some colorectal cancers) may experience skin changes. There may be a permanent darkening of the skin or hair loss in the treated area. Patients may experience diarrhea, urinary discomfort and urgency, or rectal fullness/burning. Occasionally as a result of treatment for colorectal or prostate cancer, patients may experience rectal bleeding (bloody stools). For some gynecologic cancers, the vagina may become dry, narrower and less flexible, making intercourse painful. Vaginal dilation may prevent vaginal narrowing. In women, menstrual periods stop after radiation treatment to the pelvis. A loss of fertility can occur in both sexes. Some patients treated for prostate cancer experience impotence. Radiation treatment can decrease the number of blood cells, so blood counts are monitored before, during and after therapy. back to top

Head and neck

Patients receiving radiation treatment to the head and neck area may experience skin changes. There may be a permanent darkening of the skin, or hair loss. Patients can develop irritation of the tissues in the mouth and throat, which may become sensitive or painful. They may experience a reduction in the amount of saliva produced, leading to mouth dryness, or changes in the saliva itself, such as thickening. Some patients can become hoarse, experience the sensation of a lump or obstruction in the throat. They may also have difficulty swallowing, or temporarily lose their sense of taste.back to top

Brain

Patients receiving radiation treatment for brain cancer may experience reddening, itching or darkening of the skin of the scalp and ears. There may be temporary or permanent hair loss. Occasionally, some patients feel nauseous for several hours after treatment. Headaches are sometimes reported, but very rarely. Some patients feel sleepy towards the end of the treatment course. Other side effects that some patients experience are: short-term memory loss, and a sensation of fullness in the ears or "popping" type sounds. back to top