Side Effects of:   Chemotherapy  Hormone Therapy  |  Radiation 


Side Effects of Radiation


The side effects of radiation will depend on the person, the location of the cancer, and the stage of the cancer. Some patients experience little to no side effects from radiation, while others have severe side effects. Research has improved the side effects of radiation by offering new ways of administering the treatment. Some common side effects of radiation include:

Table Of Contents

Diarrhea

Diarrhea is defined as frequent bowel movements that may be loose or watery. Radiation treatment may cause diarrhea due to its effects on the lining of your digestive tract. Diarrhea can also be caused by an infection or medications you are on, such as antibiotics and/or medicines used to treat constipation. It is important to let your doctor know if you are having more than 3 loose, watery stools in a 24 hour period, or if you have diarrhea associated with abdominal pain or cramping. Do not take ANY medications for new symptoms of diarrhea without first contacting your physician.

Tips:

  • Drink 8-12 cups of room temperature, non-carbonated clear liquids daily (water, Gatorade, ginger ale)
  • Graduated diet
  • Clear liquids (popsicles, Jello™ broth)
  • BRAT diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast)
  • If tolerated, may advance to regular diet
  • Avoid foods high in fiber, sugar, fat, and caffeine as well as milk products while you are having diarrhea
  • Increase your intake of foods high in sodium and potassium

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Fatigue

Fatigue is often described as weakness, lack of energy, or feeling heavy or slow. It can occur in varying intensities, from mild to severe. Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of chemotherapy. It can be caused or worsened by many factors, such as: anemia, poor nutrition, dehydration, lack of exercise, shortness of breath, infection, over-exertion, lack of sleep, or even the medications that you are on. Chemotherapy-induced fatigue is not always relieved with rest.

Tips:

  • Exercise
  • Plan short naps during the day
  • Get at least 8 hours of sleep at night
  • Maintain adequate nutrition and hydration
  • Find ways to decrease stress
  • Delegate tasks
  • Consider an abbreviated work schedule if possible
  • Don’t overdo it!

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Hair Loss

Hair loss, also known as alopecia, is when some or all of your hair falls out as a result of damage to the cells that cause hair growth while undergoing radiation. Hair loss will only happen on the part of the body that is being treated. Hair loss generally begins about 2-3 weeks after starting radiation, and it will start to regrow 3-6 months following your last treatment. High doses of radiation may cause permanent hair loss.

Tips:

  • Buy a wig while you still have hair (many insurance companies will cover the cost of a wig with a prescription from your doctor)
  • Cut your hair short or shave your head
  • Use mild shampoos and be gentle when washing your hair
  • Do not use items that can harm your scalp (curling irons, hair dryers, dyes, perms)

After hair loss:

  • Protect your scalp- wear sunscreen and/or a hat
  • Stay warm- wear a hat, long pants, or long sleeves
  • Try a satin pillowcase- this causes less friction against a sensitive scalp

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Intimacy

Radiation can lead to sexual changes in men and women which may impact intimate relationships. In women radiation may damage the ovaries, leading to decreased hormone levels or fertility problems. Symptoms of decreased hormone production may include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, irritability, irregular or no menstrual periods, bladder or vaginal infections, or a decreased interest in sex. Symptoms for men may include inability to reach climax, impotence, or a decreased interest in sex.

Tips:

  • It is very important for you or your partner to avoid becoming pregnant while you are on chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs can be harmful to the baby, especially in the first three months of pregnancy.
  • Always use protection. In women, birth control in combination with condoms can be used. If you, or your partner, have breast cancer, a diaphragm and condoms should be used. Men should always use condoms.
  • If you are having difficulty with vaginal dryness, ask your doctor about medications that can be used to make intimacy more comfortable and to help avoid infections

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Mouth and Throat Changes

Radiation not only targets and kills cancer cells, but it also kills health cells too, such as the ones that line your mouth, throat, and lips. Teeth, gums, and the glands that make saliva can also be affected. Common problems with the mouth and throat may include:

  • Dry Mouth
  • Mouth sores
  • Difficulty eating or drinking due to mouth pain
  • Bleeding gums when your counts are low
  • Infections of the gums or teeth
  • Changes in the way foods taste or smell

Tips:

  • Schedule a dental visit 2 weeks prior to radiation if possible. Inform your dentist if you are undergoing radiation therapy.
  • Practice good dental hygiene
  • Use a soft bristle toothbrush and baking soda toothpaste recommended
  • Brush three times daily, followed by a baking soda and salt water rinse
  • Avoid mouthwashes with alcohol, as they may cause discomfort. Try making baking soda mouthwash: ¼ tsp baking soda and 1/8 tsp salt per 1 cup of water
  • Ensure that dentures are well-fitting, limit length of wear if needed
  • Eat soft, bland foods if you have mouth pain
  • Avoid citrus, spicy, sharp/crunchy, or salty foods to avoid further discomfortDo not use tobacco or use alcohol if you have mouth pain

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Nausea and Vomiting

Nausea is when you feel sick at your stomach, vomiting is when you throw up. Dry heaves can occur when your body tries to vomit, but your stomach is empty. Radiation may cause nausea and/or vomiting. This can occur as early as 30 minutes after your treatment or up to several hours after the treatment is over.

Tips:

  • Prevent it
  • Plan meals and snacks
  • Eat small, light meals and snacks
  • Stay away from foods/drinks that have strong smells
  • Avoid foods/drinks that are very hot or very cold
  • Take nausea medicines as prescribed by your physician

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Skin Changes

Radiation can damage the skin surrounding the area that is being treated. The skin can often become red, swollen, itchy, dry, and peeling. The will usually not have a chance to regrow in between radiation treatments, so symptoms can gradually worsen. The affected skin will often become darker or blotchy and have a different texture following treatment. It is important to always use sunscreen following radiation treatment because the skin will be more susceptible to skin cancer.

Tips:

  • Avoid scrubbing or scratching the skin which could lead to an infection
  • Avoid hot or cold temperatures
  • Do not use body soaps that contain perfume or deodorants
  • Pat dry with a towel following a bath or shower
  • Increase the level of humidity in a room with a humidifier
  • Wear soft breathable fabrics
  • Avoid the sun

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Urinary Changes

Radiation treatment can damage cells in the kidney or bladder.

Tips:

  • Your doctor will monitor blood tests regularly that will indicate how well your kidneys are functioning.
  • Drink plenty of non-carbonated, caffeine free fluids (water is best)

Call your doctor if you have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Burning or pain with urination
  • Frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • Not being able to urinate
  • Incontinence
  • Blood in the urine
  • Foul smelling or cloudy urine
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Urine that is orange, red, green, or an unusual color

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