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Radiation Therapy and You: Support for People With Cancer

  • Posted: 04/20/2007

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Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Side effects are problems that can happen as a result of treatment. They may happen with radiation therapy because the high doses of radiation used to kill cancer cells can also damage healthy cells in the treatment area. Side effects are different for each person. Some people have many side effects; others have hardly any. Side effects may be more severe if you also receive chemotherapy before, during, or after your radiation therapy.

Talk to your radiation therapy team about your chances of having side effects. The team will watch you closely and ask if you notice any problems. If you do have side effects or other problems, your doctor or nurse will talk with you about ways to manage them.

Common Side Effects

Many people who get radiation therapy have skin changes and some fatigue. Other side effects depend on the part of your body being treated.

Skin changes may include dryness, itching, peeling, or blistering. These changes occur because radiation therapy damages healthy skin cells in the treatment area. You will need to take special care of your skin during radiation therapy. To learn more, see "Skin Changes".

Fatigue is often described as feeling worn out or exhausted. There are many ways to manage fatigue. To learn more, see "Fatigue".

Depending on the part of your body being treated, you may also have:
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss in the treatment area
  • Mouth problems
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sexual changes
  • Swelling
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Urinary and bladder changes

Most of these side effects go away within 2 months after radiation therapy is finished.

Late side effects may first occur 6 or more months after radiation therapy is over. They vary by the part of your body that was treated and the dose of radiation you received. Late side effects may include infertility, joint problems, lymphedema, mouth problems, and secondary cancer. Everyone is different, so talk to your doctor or nurse about whether you might have late side effects and what signs to look for. See "Late Radiation Therapy Side Effects" for more information on late side effects.

"Radiation Therapy Side Effects and Ways to Manage Them" explains each side effect in more detail and includes ways you and your doctor or nurse can help manage them.