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Radiation Therapy: Managing Short-Term Side Effects

Radiation therapy uses strong energy beams to kill cancer cells. It tends to damage cancer cells more than normal cells. But normal cells in the treatment area can also be affected. This causes side effects.

Some common short-term side effects of radiation can include skin redness, soreness, and dryness. They can also include severe tiredness (fatigue), and changes in your appetite. Side effects depend on what part of the body is being treated.

Side effects often start a few weeks into treatment. Many of them can be treated. And there may be things you can do to help prevent some side effects. Most side effects slowly go away over time after your radiation therapy is over.

What you can do for some of the most common radiation side effects is reviewed here. Radiation therapy can also cause long-term side effects. These might not show up until months or even years after treatment ends.

Talk with your treatment team about side effects you might have and what you should watch for.

Having side effects during radiation therapy is normal. It doesn't mean that your cancer is getting worse or that therapy isn’t working.

Caring for your skin

Skin problems tend to happen in the exact place where the radiation goes into your body. Your skin may become dry, itchy, and red. It may hurt. It may blister and peel. It may darken in that spot, like a sunburn.

To care for your skin:

  • Don’t scrub the skin over the treatment area, but keep it clean. Use warm water and mild soap, or as your healthcare provider advises. Pat the skin or let it air dry.

  • Don't shave the treated area or use hair removal products unless your treatment team says it's OK.

  • Ask your therapy team what products you can use and when to use them. Talk with them before using any kind of lotion or moisturizers, powder, perfume, oil, or deodorant.

  • Keep the treated area out of direct sunlight. Hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing are very helpful. Ask about using sunscreen.

  • Don't remove ink marks unless your radiation therapist says you can. Don’t scrub the marks when you wash. Let water run over them and pat them dry.

  • Protect your skin from heat or cold. Don't use hot tubs, saunas, hot pads, or ice packs.

  • Wear soft, loose clothing to keep skin from rubbing.

  • Try to not rub or scratch your skin in the treated area.

Fighting tiredness

Cancer itself or cancer treatments including radiation therapy may make you feel tired. Your body is working hard to heal and repair itself. To feel better:

  • Try light exercise each day. Take short walks.

  • Plan tasks for the times when you tend to have the most energy. Ask for help when you need it.

  • Relax before you go to bed to sleep better. Try reading or listening to soothing music.

  • Let your cancer care team know if you continue to have fatigue that isn't getting better. They may be able to offer ways to help. 

Coping with appetite changes

Tell your therapy team if you find it hard to eat or have no appetite. You may need to see a nutritionist. This is a healthcare provider with special training in meal planning. To keep your strength up, you need to eat well and maintain your weight. Think of healthy eating as part of your treatment. Try these tips:

  • Eat slowly.

  • Eat small meals several times a day.

  • Eat more food when you’re feeling better, even if it's not mealtime.

  • Ask others to keep you company when you eat.

  • Stock up on easy-to-make foods.

  • Eat foods high in protein and calories.

  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids.

  • Ask your healthcare provider before taking any vitamins. They can sometimes interfere with treatment or lead to side effects.

Woman drinking glass of water.
Drink plenty of liquids, such as water.

Site-specific side effects

These side effects include the following: 

  • You may lose hair in the area being treated. The hair may not grow back after treatment. As your healthcare provider if and where you may experience hair loss (alopecia).

  • Your mouth or throat may become dry or sore if your head or neck is being treated. Sip cool water to help ease discomfort. Sometimes the dryness can be lasting (permanent).

  • Upset stomach (nausea) and bowel changes can happen with radiation to the pelvic area. Tell your healthcare provider if you have nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. You may need to take medicine or follow a special diet.

Talk with your healthcare team

Radiation therapy can also have other side effects, including some that might not show up until years later. Talk with your healthcare team about what to expect with the type of radiation therapy you're getting, including when you should call them with concerns. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Dave Herold MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2022
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