Coping with Common Radiation Therapy Side Effects

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Because radiation therapy involves focusing strong beams of radioactive energy directly on the cancerous tumor and not throughout the body, most side effects occur in the immediate area where the radiation was directed. However, many cancer patients experience some level of overall fatigue, as well as skin irritation and hair loss at the treatment site.

There are different types of radiation therapy. Some are administered from the outside and some are implanted inside the body. Also, the radioactive chemicals used can vary according to the treatment. Be sure to ask your doctor what type of side effects you can expect from your particular type of radiation therapy.

Fatigue as a result of radiation treatment

Radiation-induced fatigue can range from mild to severe and may last for months after you’ve completed therapy. Some people never regain their pre-treatment energy levels.

Fighting cancer is hard work and can take not only a physical toll, but an emotional one as well. You may find you need to reorganize your day. Do the most strenuous tasks early, while you still have some energy reserves. Ask friends or relatives to run errands or help with more physically demanding chores. Nap when you need to, drink lots of water, and eat energy-boosting, high-protein foods.

If you’re normally a gym rat, you may find that you need to cut back on your exercise intensity. Consider yoga, t'ai chi, or walking. There’ll be time for treadmills and weight training when your treatment is done.

Skin irritation from radiation

Radiation therapy damages the skin where you’ve received treatment. This damage can cause your skin to look and feel sunburned, or to look darker than normal. Your skin can also itch, peel, swell, or develop ulcers.

Although the irritation will heal a few weeks after therapy is through, it’s important to treat your skin gently while you’re undergoing radiation to prevent infection. Don’t rub or scratch your skin. Always blot your skin dry after you bathe. Don’t expose your skin to extreme conditions. Tepid and lukewarm are the watch words for air and water temperature. Keep the treatment area out of the sun.

Tell your doctor about all the soap and skin care products you use and ask her which ones are safe during treatment. Also, if you normally shave or use a depilatory in the area being treated, ask if you can continue to do so.

Hair loss following cancer treatment

If you have hair at the site where you’re receiving radiation, you will probably lose it. Your hair will start to fall out a few weeks into your therapy. If you’re receiving high doses of radiation, your hair may not grow back. If your hair does return (usually within 6 months), it may not be the same color or texture as it was prior to treatment.

Hair loss on the head can be camouflaged with wigs, hats, and turbans. Eyebrows and eyelashes can be created with eyebrow pencils and artificial eyelashes.

Many cancer patients receive both chemotherapy and radiation. If you’re one of them, you also need to consider that you may experience additional side effects from the chemotherapy.

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