Radiation therapy for cancer can sometimes affect normal tissue, causing side effects. These side effects do not happen to everyone and their severity depends on the person, the cancer, the amount of radiation given, and most of all on the part of the body being treated. Also side effects, if they do occur, usually appear after you are well into your treatment. Talk to your doctor, radiation therapist or nursing staff at the treatment centre and they will help you cope with them.
Even though most side effects are temporary, you need to tell your doctor and nurse about them, as treatments are available. Side effects may persist up to 3 to 4 weeks after completion of treatment while the cells return to normal. It is also important to let your treatment team know if you are considering using an alternative therapy or home remedy for side effects.
The most common side effects of radiation therapy are tiredness, skin problems and loss of appetite. Other problems can occur, however they are specific to the area that is treated and should be discussed with your doctor.
What can I do about tiredness?
You may get tired easily during therapy because your body uses a lot of energy to fight the cancer and to rebuild normal cells. Try to rest as much as you can.
You may want to try new, quieter activities such as handicrafts, relaxation techniques or reading temporarily. If you feel tired on waking, or are not sleeping well at night, tell your doctor or nurse.
If you have a job, it may be possible to take a few weeks off work or reduce working hours throughout treatment.
Many benefit from a holiday from their work and other responsibilities after completing radiation therapy, as this is when any side effects and tiredness tends to peak.
You may lose some or all of your hair over the area being treated (eg: head, face or body). Hair on the face/body tends not to grow back while hair on the head may grow back slowly.
If you have lost or are losing hair from your head you may wish to wear a wig, toupee or turban for a time. Contact the welfare or social worker in the treatment centre who will be able to help you. If you have private health insurance, staff there will provide information on rebates for wigs. You can also call the Cancer Help Line for further information on 13 11 20.
Nausea and diarrhoea
If you're having radiation treatment to the stomach or abdominal area, you may get an upset stomach, diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting.
If you experience any of these symptoms you should advise your doctor, radiation therapist or a nurse as a prescribed medication can relieve these problems.
If you don't feel well after radiation therapy, try not eating for a few hours before your next treatment. If your stomach is upset before radiation therapy, try eating light meals (toast, dry biscuits and juice) before your treatment.
Before taking any un-prescribed remedies during your radiation therapy treatment check with your doctor, radiation therapist or nurse.
Face, mouth and neck problems
While having radiation therapy treatment to the face, mouth or neck, your mouth and throat may become dry and sore and you may notice changes in your taste of food. Your voice may become hoarse or husky. These changes usually subside after the treatment is completed. These side effects may be difficult to cope with, but once again the doctor, radiation therapist and nursing staff are available to help.
Loss of appetite
If these suggestions don't help, consult your doctor, nurse or dietician.