After a cancer diagnosis, your health care team will assess your best treatment options. Those options may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or some combination of those approaches. A side effect is a secondary effect from a medical treatment (as an example, many people have heard that a common side effect for some cancer treatments is hair loss).
About 60% of U.S. cancer patients will receive radiation therapy as a part of their treatment. Some patients will not experience any side effects, while others will experience mild ones. The potential for side effects from radiation depends on many factors, such as the cancer location, the extent of disease, previous radiation treatment, and the total amount of radiation given. Expectations for side effects will be discussed as part of your consent to treatment.
What are some common side effects?
The most common side effect of radiation treatment is fatigue. This may be because your immune system is reacting to radiation damaging cells in your body. Patients also may feel tired from anxiety about the disease, treatment visits disrupting a normal routine, and stress about an unfamiliar treatment.
A commonly reported side effect of radiation treatment is mild short-term change in skin color, or skin reddening and sensitivity like a sunburn. Some patients may experience diarrhea after treatments to the abdomen or pelvis. Patients who are being treated around the head or neck may have dry mouth or difficulty swallowing. Many side effects are mild and disappear within a few weeks after treatment is completed. In rarer cases, side effects can last a long time and may even result in a permanent change. These effects are managed by the patient and their health care team.
It may take months after treatment for a side effect to completely develop. For example, some patients treated with radiation for prostate cancer have nerve damage and can experience long-term diminished sexual function because of this damage. This side effect may appear gradually about a year and a half after treatment as a reduction in the ability to achieve full erection. Reduced ejaculate is also a common side effect. One possible short-term side effect for patients receiving breast radiation treatment is some mild moistness or blistering in folds of skin. Longer term there may be some retraction of the treated breast or arm swelling. It is best for a patient to discuss any symptoms and possible side effects with their health care team. Radiation professionals have collectively treated many thousands of patients with similar diseases and these professionals are experts on managing all kinds of radiation side effects.
Although not a direct side effect of radiation treatment, patients may also experience symptoms of depression. They might feel angry, frustrated, helpless, or alone while going through cancer therapy. Emotions of patients should also be shared with the health care team. Many centers provide group support and one-on-one counseling as part of their service.
Where can I learn more?
More detail on radiation side effects is available from reputable cancer information websites. The U.S. National Cancer Institute website and its publication “Radiation Therapy and You” is a great introduction to what to expect.