Radiation Therapy and Its Effects on the Body
Written By: SERO Board-Certified Physicians
Radiation therapy can be an important component of cancer treatment; however, it can cause mild-to-severe side effects for some patients. Depending of the area of the body being treated and the amount of radiation the body is exposed to, radiation therapy affects the body in several ways. These effects of radiation therapy on the body can appear shortly after treatment and can last for several weeks to several months after treatment ends.
Short-Term Side Effects
The most common side effect of radiation therapy is fatigue. Fatigue is a general sense of tiredness that may not get better with rest. The underlying cause of fatigue during cancer treatment is not always identifiable, but there are ways to manage fatigue so that it’s effects are not as severe. To manage fatigue doctors recommend getting plenty of rest, alternating periods of activity with short periods of rest, eating a healthy diet, and reducing stress.
Hair loss and skin issues are also common effects of radiation therapy on the body. Hair loss and skin issues occur at the site on the body where the radiation is administered. Radiation therapy will only cause hair loss at the treatment site, rather than all over the body. The hair will typically regrow once treatment is over, although it may be a different texture or thinner than it was before. The skin issues caused by radiation therapy can range from mild sensitivity or irritation to peeling or blistering. Be gentle with the affected skin: use lukewarm water and mild soap to cleanse it, avoid applying lotion, perfumes, etc., shield skin from the sun, and avoid abrading the area (wear soft, loose clothing, etc.).
Radiation therapy can cause loss of appetite, especially if the head or digestive system are being treated. When undergoing cancer treatment, a proper diet is incredibly important. To combat the loss of appetite, eat five or six small meals rather than a few large ones, try to eat even if you aren’t hungry, and keep snacks handy so you can eat whenever you are hungry. If you cannot consume enough food to meet your calorie requirements, try adding calories to your meals with butter, milk, and/or cheese.
Long-Term Side Effects of Radiation Therapy
Fatigue, hair and skin issues, and loss of appetite are fairly short-term side effects of radiation therapy on the body. These side effects typically subside within a few months of the end of radiation therapy. These long-term side effects are much less common and not every cancer patient will experience them.
Because radiation therapy can sometimes damage normal cells, radiation therapy can sometimes cause lingering problems in the treated areas. Radiation in the pelvic or abdominal area can sometimes cause residual problems such as bladder infections, bowel issues, inflammation, and sexual dysfunction. Radiation therapy can also cause osteoporosis, hypothyroidism, and lymphedema (swelling caused by the collection of fluid in parts of the body). Although rare, the damage that radiation can cause to healthy tissues could potentially lead to the development of a second cancer.
Although effects of radiation therapy on the body can be a cause for concern, the benefits of radiation therapy in the treatment of some cancers outweigh the risks.