Information - Support - Advocacy
Research... and Hope

Side effects of radiation treatment

Unlike chemotherapy, a systemic treatment that travels throughout the body via the bloodstream, radiation therapy is a localized treatment which is directed toward a specific site. Therefore, patients experience side effects related to the area of the body being given the radiation therapy. Most patients do not experience nausea or vomiting unless the stomach is actually included in the treated area (in this case, there are medications available to minimize discomfort) and loss of scalp hair does not occur unless the patient's head is being treated. Male oral cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy may experience permanent loss of hair in the area of their beard. Most patients do experience some degree of fatigue during radiation therapy.

In most situations side effects begin to occur sometime between the second and third week of treatment. Be sure to alert your physician or nurse when side effects occur so that they may monitor them, and provide the appropriate interventions to keep you as comfortable as possible. The type and severity of side effects vary from patient to patient, and many times patients find that the effects are a little more pronounced toward the end of the treatment week. During the days when the patient is not being radiated, symptoms usually resolve to some degree so that most patients feel more comfortable by the beginning of the next treatment week. However, not all symptoms of the radiation treatments fall into this category. Mucositis, lack of salivary function, and skin irritation will all get progressively worse as treatment continues. After treatment is completed, the body will begin to heal this damage, and with the possible exception of salivary function, things will return to normal.

Side effects from radiation are usually caused by irritation of normal tissue in the treatment area. While cancer cells are particularly sensitive to radiation and are irreparably damaged by it, normal tissue cells have the ability to repair themselves after being exposed to radiation. Therefore, most of the side effects caused by radiation therapy resolve in time after completion of treatment. Your radiation oncologist will discuss any side effects that have the potential to become permanent after the treatments are completed. more information

Common Concerns

Isthere any chance I could get too much radiation?

You will receive a safe amount of radiation to the appropriate site with little danger of overdose. The amount of radiation each patient receives is determined by the radiation oncologist and is delivered under the physician's supervision with the support of a medical physicist and a dosimetrist (a person with special education in planning radiation therapy treatments). The prescribed dose of radiation is carefully programmed into the radiation therapy machine (linear accelerator) prior to each patient's treatment. In addition, each radiation therapy center has quality assurance programs in place to check and double check each patient's treatment plan, and to monitor the actual delivery of the radiation.

A friend told me they knew someone who got burned when they had radiation treatments.

Fortunately, with today's technology, we see fewer cases of damage to normal body tissue such as the skin, particularly when the tumor being treated lies deep within the body. Treatment planning and delivery techniques allow for the maximum dose of radiation to be given to the tumor itself, while giving the skin surface a minimal amount of radiation. However, with oral cancers the treated area is close to the skin surface (such as neck tumors or lymph nodes) and a skin reaction is likely to occur. These reactions are closely monitored and action is taken to minimize patient discomfort. Skin reactions resolve after treatments are completed.

I'm concerned about being left alone during the radiation treatment... what if I need assistance?

For most of the 10 to 15 minutes you spend in the radiation therapy room each day, the radiation therapists will be with you making sure that everything is set up appropriately for your treatment. They will step out of the room only when the radiation is being given (usually less than 2 or 3 minutes at a time). During this time you will be continuously observed by the therapists on both audio and video monitors. If for any reason you need assistance, the therapists can immediately discontinue the treatment and be at your side very quickly.

Will I he able to drive myself to and from my treatments?

Most patients who are able to drive prior to starting radiation treatments will be able to continue to do so during treatments. Your radiation oncologist will caution you if there may be a problem with you driving yourself to and from treatments. It's a good idea to have a backup plan just in case you don't feel up to driving.

Although many times new patients and their families feel somewhat apprehensive about radiation therapy, they are generally reassured at how "easy" radiation therapy actually is.

Can I talk with other pateints about their experiences?"

If you would like to talk to and ask questions of patients who have been through treatments, you should go to the main navigation bar on the left hand side of many of these web pages and find the link which says Survivor/Patient Forum. Click there and you will be taken to a sign in area. After filling out a simple form you will be emailed a password, and then be able to interact with literally thousands of other patients and survivors who can help answer your questions. There are also archives of thousands of previous questions and answers that you may search to learn about how others have coped with treatments.