Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is a procedure that is used mainly to treat cancer and other conditions such as thyroid disorders, non-cancerous growths, and blood disorders. Just like other types of treatment, radiotherapy often causes side effects. The side effects generally depend on the type of condition being treated, its location, dose of radiations, and the overall health of the patient.
Many of the side effects occur when a high dosage of radiation is used. The side effects occur because radiation therapy does not only damage cancer cells, but also other healthy tissues and cells around the area of treatment. However, radiation technology used today has been made precise, resulting in fewer side effects. To some individuals, radiotherapy causes few or no side effects at all. To others, the side effects are very severe. Reactions that result to side effects usually start on the 2nd or 3rd week of treatment. The side effects may remain for few months after the last treatment.
Common Side Effects
Fatigue is the feeling of tiredness both physically, emotionally, and mentally. Fatigue is very common when radiotherapy is used to treat cancer. Management of fatigue is a very good step in caring for your body after radiation therapy.
Fatigue means that the body has less energy to do normal activities. Fatigue can last for several days before one returns to normal or usual activities. Fatigue caused by cancer radiotherapy is much different from other fatigues experienced in everyday life. This fatigue never gets better, even after resting. Fatigue after cancer radiotherapy can also:
- Make it difficult for one to follow a cancer treatment plan.
- Last for an indefinite length of time.
- Make it difficult to spend time with family members and friends.
- Make it very hard for you to feel good.
- Differ from one day to the other. It can intensify and reduce over time.
Although no lab tests can be used to describe fatigue, a scale of 0 to 10 can be used to tell how severe your fatigue is.
If the cause of your fatigue is known, you can treat it with ease. in some of the patients, fatigue can be managed by correcting mineral and fluid imbalances. other ways you can manage fatigue is by increasing physical activity, eating well, and also treating insomnia (sleeping problems). Counseling and education about radiation therapy is one way of treating its side effects. You can, for example, learn how to save energy and reduce stress that may help reduce fatigue.
by understanding what is causing fatigue in your body, it is very easy to cope with it and reduce distress. Your family members can also help you cope with fatigue as well. below are some of the important things you can do to better cope with fatigue:
- Ask for help from friends and family members if you need it.
- Make a record of how you feel so that you can explain it to your doctor.
- Reduce stress as much as you can. you can do this through meditation, deep breathing, prayer, and even listening to music.
2. Skin Problems
After beginning your radiation therapy, the skin on the area that is undergoing radiation will turn red, sunburned, swollen, irritated, blistered, or tanned for about two weeks. Your skin may also become itchy, flaky, dry, and even peel at times. This condition is known as Radiation Dermatitis. It is important to inform your doctor of any skin changes that have occurred after radiation therapy. Once you have informed the doctor of skin changes, they will attempt to reduce discomfort, lessen further pains, and prevent infection.
In case of skin problems, you should:
- Avoid wearing tight, stiff, or rough-textured cloths on the area of treatment.
- Avoid rubbing, scratching, or scrubbing the itchy area.
- Avoid putting cold or hot ice packs on the area of treatment.
- Keep the area of treatment out of direct exposure to sunlight.
- Use only mild soap or lukewarm water to wash the treatment area.
- Consult your doctor before using any treatments or medicines on the site of treatment.
- Make sure that you shave the area of treatment before visiting the medical team.
3. Low Blood Counts
In rare cases, radiotherapy can lower the level of white blood cells and platelets in the body. These blood cells help your body fight infections and prevent bleeding. In case your blood tests indicate low blood counts, radiotherapy may be delayed for about a week to make sure that your blood count is normal. Low blood count is common mainly when radiation therapy is given together with chemotherapy
4. Loss of Hair
Radiation therapy can cause loss of hair, a condition known as ‘Alopecia’. However, this hair loss only occurs on the area that is undergoing radiation treatment. For example, radiation of the head will cause loss of hair on the head, eyebrows, and eye lashes. If you have radiotherapy of the hip, you will not lose the hair on your head. However, you may lose your hair after the treatment, but It will grow back to normal after you have recovered. Your hair will grow thinner and with a different texture and color after recovery from radiation therapy.
In some cases, you may not lose your hair, but your scalp will become so tender that you may be forced to cover your head most of the time to protect it from direct sunlight.
5. Eating and Digestion Problems
If you have radiation therapy of the head, neck, stomach, or the intestines, you must experience digestion and eating problems. For example, you will get sores on your mouth and throat that may induce loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. In case you have problems with eating, try to eat high calorie and high protein foods. Individuals who eat well are able to manage the side effects of radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy is one of the methods used to treat cancer, but it is accompanied with many side effects that can sometimes even outweigh its benefits. You can manage some of the short-term side effects but not the long-term.