Side effects are problems that can happen as a result of radiation treatment, not everyone gets the exact same side effects as radiation only effects the area of treatment. Chemotherapy, unlike radiation treatment effects the entire body. Radiation therapy side effects of occur because high doses of radiation used to kill cancer cells can also damage healthy cells in the treatment area. While some people have many side effects; others have hardly any. These effects may be more severe if you also receive chemotherapy before, during, or after your radiation therapy regimen. Some common side effects discussed below are:
- Hair Loss
- Dry Skin
When you first meet with your Radiation Oncologist side effects particular to your treatment will be discussed. Also the radiation therapy team will do their best to lessen the side effects and help treat the side effects as they arise.
Hair loss is one side effect many people are concerned about, with radiation therapy, the hair is lost only in the area of treatment. If your chest is being treated you won’t lose the hair on your head and if your head is being treated you will lose the hair on your head, but not anywhere else on your body. You may start losing your hair in about 2-3 weeks after your first radiation treatment. It takes about a week or so for all of your hair to fall out at this time you may decide whether to cut your hair or shave your head. If you decide to shave your head use an electric razor to prevent cutting yourself, people undergoing radiation and chemotherapy are more prone to infection, due to a suppressed immune system. Your hair may grow back 3-6 months after treatment is done. In some cases your hair will not grow back due to the high dose of radiation required to treat your condition.
When your hair grows back it may not look or feel the same way it did before. Your hair may be curly instead of straight, more gray than you had before or darker than before. Now is the time to “baby” your hair, use mild shampoos, dry your hair by patting your head not rubbing it, don’t color your hair, get a perm or relaxer. Don’t braid your hair or pull it too tightly. You may plan to buy an wig, do this before you begin to lose your hair, that way you can match the wig to as close to your true hair color and style. You can take it to your hair stylist and have it styled. Make sure the wig is comfortable and does not hurt your scalp. Losing your hair can make you feel self conscious, for women put on a little extra makeup to enhance your eyes and lips. If you don’t want to wear a wig, but aren’t comfortable being in public with a bare head, use scarves to accent your clothing, or wear a hat. Once you have lost your hair you need to be careful of the sun, even if you have dark skin, as your head is not used to being exposed. You lose quite a bit of heat from you head so it is important to keep it warm, but not too hot and uncomfortable.
A side effect of radiation therapy is skin changes much like a sunburn. This takes a few weeks to happen, but even before you see any changes, you must be mindful of the sun exposure to your skin, even if you have dark skin, you must be careful of sun exposure as well. Just as you “baby” your scalp, you must “baby” your skin in the area of treatment. Some common side effects are skin changes which may include dryness, itching, peeling, or slight blistering. These are common but once again not everyone will get these side effects. Use only the lotions or creams that your radiation therapist or radiation oncology nurse prescribes. When you go out in the sun make sure that you are covered up in the area of treatment.
I had a patient who lived as a nudist in a nudist colony. He was getting treatment to his chest area, he was concerned that he would have to wear clothes when going outside, I told him that all he had to cover up was his chest and neck area, other than that he could be as free as he wanted to be! He got a good laugh out of that and even gave me a picture showing me how he would have a collared shirt, buttoned all the way up, sleeves cut off and no pants (his private area was covered by his hands in the photo), he really got a kick out of showing me that he was listening to me and following my advice.
If your pelvis or abdomen is being treated you might get diarrhea. During this time you should stay away from milk and dairy foods, spicy foods, foods or drinks with caffeine, foods that are high in fiber such as raw fruits and vegetables, fried or greasy foods and foods that can cause gas such as beans, soy and cabbage. Be very gentle with your rectal area, don’t use dry toilet paper as that will irritate the area, use a baby wipe or even wet toilet paper to clean your bottom. Let your radiation therapist or radiation oncology nurse know if you are having diarrhea and if your rectal area is sore. The radiation oncologist may prescribe anti-diarrhea medicine as well as special cream for your rectal area to heal.
It is important when you have diarrhea that you drink plenty of clear fluids, water is great, if a drink is high in sugar dilute it with water. Eat small meals and snacks and eat foods that are “easy” on the stomach, such as boiled potatoes, white rice, crackers, pasta, toast, chicken that is broiled, stewed or baked.
Fatigue which is often described as feeling worn out or exhausted, is another side effect. Fatigue can happen for many reasons, anemia, anxiety and depression, stress, an infection, medicines and chemo, lack of activity, if you aren’t eating well and even just the effort of going to the the radiation treatments on a daily basis. Fatigue from radiation therapy can be mild to an extreme feeling of being very tired. People describe it as feeling worn out, weak, that your feet feel heavy and that you are moving slow. Factors that can influence the level of fatigue are age, health, level of activity and your condition prior to having radiation therapy. Fatigue can last from 6 weeks to a year after your radiation therapy has ended. And believe it or not some people don’t feel much fatigue at all. Having radiation therapy means you need to think of yourself and truly care for yourself. Have others help you with chores at home, watching kids while you rest or even driving you sometimes to your radiation treatments. Make sure you rest, and try not to do too much, I know easy to say, hard to do, but think of this as ME time and really learn to pamper yourself.