Healthy Living

What Are the Risks of Radiation Therapy?

Key Takeaways

  • Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses radiation to destroy the tumor.
  • Some of the risks or complications of radiation therapy are specific based on the location of treatment.
  • Radiation has the potential to cause harm to the healthy cells of the heart, lung, or liver.

Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses radiation to destroy the tumor. During the treatment, forms of radiation such as gamma rays or x-rays are used. It is one of the most employed means of treating cancer due to its effectiveness. In the treatment of cancer, it can be used as the only treatment, or it can be combined with other treatments’ such as ‘Chemotherapy’ to improve the results.

Yet despite the effectiveness of radiotherapy, there are great risks that come with this treatment. Some of these risks can be short-term while others may be long-term. The risks associated with radiation therapy are dangerous and capable of causing even death to the patient.

Here are some of the known risks of radiation therapy:

1. Risks Based on Location of Treatment

Some of the risks or complications of radiation therapy are specific based on the location of treatment. The side-effects vary depending on the part of the body that is being treated. Below are some of the side-effects on the various parts of the body:

A. Your Head and Neck

When you are receiving radiation therapy around your head or neck, some of the risks that may cause complications include:

  • Development of sores on your mouth and gums
  • Dryness of the mouth
  • Nausea
  • Loss of hair on you head
  • Difficulty when swallowing food
  • Decaying of teeth

B. Your Chest

When radiotherapy is done on your chest, it can cause the following risks:

  • Fatigue
  • Development of sores on your breasts or nipples
  • Difficulty when swallowing
  • Stiffening of your shoulders
  • Fullness of the chest
  • Radiation fibrosis
  • Radiation pneumonitis

C. Your Stomach and Abdomen

These are some of the risks of radiation therapy on your stomach or abdomen:

D. Your Pelvis

When the radiation treatment is aimed at your pelvis, the following side effects may occur:

  • Diarrhea
  • Irritation of the bladder
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Incontinence

Men who undergo radiation therapy in the pelvic region may experience these side effects:

Women who undergo radiation therapy in the pelvic region may experience these side effects:

  • Changes in menstrual pattern.
  • Vaginal burning, itching, or dryness.
  • Lack of estrogen production.
  • Early menopause.

2. Long Term Complications of Radiation

Radiation can cause damage to the healthy cells as the cancer is being destroyed. This can end up resulting in side effects that may show years after the treatment was done. These long-term side effects can be very hard to predict. Examples of the long-term side effects may include:

A. Development of Chronic Health Conditions

Radiation has the potential to cause harm to the healthy cells of the heart, lung, or liver. This may cause these organs to become affected and stop functioning properly. A patient may therefore end up having heart conditions or other chronic illnesses associated with the major body organs.

Future fertility problems may also emerge due to radiation therapy. Men may have problems in generating and maintaining an erection (erectile dysfunction) and their sperms may also be affected. Women may become unable to carry a pregnancy to term or ovulate.

Sex and fertility issues may also result in stress and psychological problems.

B. Development of a Secondary Cancer

Radiation has been known to cause cancer in human beings. This can also occur due to radiation therapy. For example, it was noted in the past that the use of radiation therapy to treat Hodgkin disease in women made them prone to developing breast cancer.

The risk of another cancer arising due to radiation therapy is high and most of these cancers begin to manifest themselves after ten years or more.  

3. Other Risks

Radiation therapy has also been known to cause a condition known as lymphedema. This is a condition where the radiation causes fluid to accumulate in certain areas of the body. This fluid accumulation results in swelling.

Radiation fibrosis is also another condition that can develop because of radiation therapy. This condition is where your lungs become permanently scarred because of radiation pneumonitis.

How to Avoid Risks of Radiation Therapy

It is possible to avoid some of the risks associated with radiation therapy. Most of the short-term risks usually go away after the treatment is over.

Some people may experience a few of the risks, others none, while for some the risks may be very severe. There are also medications that can be prescribed by your doctor to help you with side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, and sores.

The kind of risks that affect you will depend on where the radiation therapy is being done. In recent times, there have also been improvements in radiation therapy technology. This has made it possible to administer it more precisely thus causing less damage to the healthy tissues.

Tips on How to Manage Yourself During the Treatment

  1. Get plenty of rest. Many people who have radiation therapy may feel fatigued. To reduce this, make sure you have enough sleep and spare your energy for activities that are important.
  2. Take your medication as per your prescriptions. Do not miss a dose or take them at the wrong time.
  3. Eat healthy foods and maintain a well-balanced diet.
  4. Ask your friends and family for help as needed.

The Bottom Line

It is important that you communicate with your doctor to better understand the risks that are associated with radiation therapy. Your doctor will also explain to you about the side effects and how you can manage them.

Before making the decision to undergo radiation therapy, ask your doctor if there are other treatments that are less risky for your condition. This will help you weigh your choices and pick the one which suits you best.

Though radiation therapy has many risks, this does not mean that the therapy is not a good treatment method. On the contrary, it has been known to be very successful in very many cases. With the help of your doctor, you should be able to control the risks and therefore make your treatment even more helpful.