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The Side Effects of Treating Cancer With Radiation Therapy

The side effects from cancer treatments can vary from person to person. They can also differ depending on the type of treatment your doctor recommends, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy or surgery.

Radiation therapy is a safe and effective cancer treatment that has been used for more than 120 years. This lifesaving therapy can lead to some side effects, although most are generally well-tolerated by patients. Much has changed in radiation oncology in recent years, including new technology that helps doctors target tumors very precisely. This has led to a sharp decrease in side effects, especially skin irritation.

Various side effects

Some physical and emotional side effects are common no matter what type of cancer is being treated. For example, patients who receive radiation therapy may have noticeably less energy or experience fatigue that can interrupt daily activities, although most patients return to their normal energy levels within a few weeks after treatment.

Other side effects, especially those of the skin, tend to differ depending on the type of cancer being treated. For example, patients with breast cancer commonly experience skin irritation like a mild-to-moderate sunburn, although most say this irritation is not as bad as expected. Skin effects are cumulative and may be more painful near the end of treatment. We advise patients to treat their skin gently and recommend over-the-counter skin products to help relieve irritation.

Men treated with radiation therapy for prostate cancer can experience side effects such as more frequent urination or bowel movements. These side effects can usually be managed with medication and diet changes, and typically improve within a few weeks after treatment is completed.

Managing your treatment

Managing side effects is a collaborative effort that involves your radiation oncologist, the radiation therapists who deliver treatments, specially trained nurses, registered dieticians and others. Patients and caregivers also play an active role in this process, and we encourage you to speak up. The radiation oncologist will examine patients as often as needed to assess the effectiveness of their treatment, manage side effects, answer questions and offer reassurance.

Every person’s experience with cancer treatment is different. Your radiation oncologist should explain in detail all potential side effects associated with treatment. Be sure to ask questions. Cancer care teams are most successful when we work closely with our patients to ensure your concerns are understood and addressed.

Thomas Eichler, MD, FASTRO, President-Elect, American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), [email protected]

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