What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy x-rays. High levels of radiation can kill cells or keep them from growing and dividing. Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer because cancer cells are growing and dividing more rapidly than many of the normal cells around them. In addition, most normal cells appear to recover more fully from radiation effects than cancer cells.
What are the uses of radiation therapy?
Radiation may be used alone, in combination with surgery or chemotherapy, or both. There is no pain or discomfort during the treatment. It is much like having an ordinary x-ray taken, except that the child needs to hold still for a few minutes longer. In some cases, young children need to be sedated in order to hold still for the radiation treatment.
What are the types of radiation therapy?
Radiation is delivered in one of two ways:
1. Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy) inserts radioactive material directly into or near the tumor. The radioactive material is either later removed or left in place. Removable radiation sources are inserted with needles or small thin tubes. Sometimes the material is left in your body (permanent brachytherapy). In this case, small beads containing the radioactive material are inserted into the tumor. The beads release radiation at the site of the tumor over a few days or weeks, after which they are no longer radioactive.
2. Teletherapy (external radiation therapy) uses a beam of radiation directed at the tumor. Once the area of cancer is identified, a small ink tattoo is fixed on the skin over the area of cancer so that the radiation beam can be focused on the same spot for each treatment. It is necessary to focus the radiation beam on the cancer cells and to shield nearby healthy tissue from the radiation. External radiation therapy is usually done in multiple treatments, usually once a day for 5 to 6 days a week for several weeks.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy?
Side effects of radiation vary from patient to patient. It all depends on how often treatment is given and at what degree. The most experienced side effects are:
- skin problems
- loss of appetite
- sore mouth
- hair loss
- decreases in blood count.
Click on 'next page' below to read more about the side effects of radiation therapy and how to cope with them during treatment.
What can I do to take care of myself during radiation therapy?
You need to take special care of yourself to protect your health during the treatment. Your doctor or nurse will give you advice for caring for yourself that is specific to your treatment and the side effects that might result, but here are some suggestions:
- Be sure to get plenty of rest
- Eat a balanced, nutritious diet
- Take care of the skin in the treatment area
- Avoid wearing tight clothes
- Do not rub, scrub, or use adhesive tape on treated skin
- Do not apply heat or cold (heating pad or ice pack, etc.) to the treatment area
- Do not use a pre-shave or after-shave lotion or hair-removal products
- Protect the treated area from the sun
- Tell your doctor about medicines you are taking before treatment.
While undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment, patients should also:
- Try to eat a variety of foods, with special attention to protein. This helps the body repair the tissues damaged during treatment.
- If diarrhea is a problem, try avoiding dairy products, which may make it worse.
- An appetite for large meals may be gone. Try several smaller meals each day.
- When away from home, carry food and water.
- Avoid foods high in fat. These foods can cause a sense of "fullness," without providing enough nutrients.
Am I going to lose my hair because of radiation?
Hair loss only occurs at the site which is being treated. If you are having radiation therapy on your pelvis, you will not lose the hair on your head. But, if you are having treatment for a brain tumor, there is a good chance you will experience hair loss. The good news is that hair does grow back after treatment.
How can I deal with fatigue?
All radiation patients experience some degree of fatigue during treatment. Fatigue is a general feeling of being extremely tired. This is the time when a cancer patient should really utilize their support system to help with chores, errands, child care and other small tasks. Short naps throughout the day and getting uninterrupted sleep at night really make a difference in a person's energy level.
How can I deal with skin problems?
- The skin that has been exposed to treatment may appear red, sunburned, tan, or irritated. The skin is very sensitive and delicate and should be treated with care.
- Try using only very mild soaps in the area, avoid perfumes or scented body lotions, avoid exposure of the area to sun during treatment and for at least one year after, and try to avoid tight fitting clothing.
- Problems with the skin will go away after treatment end. Be advised that sometimes the treated area may appear darker than it was prior to treatment.
How can I deal with eating problems?
Loss of appetite can lead to fatigue and nutritional deficiencies. It is very important to keep up strength during any cancer treatment and food is one of the best resources to do that. Eating smaller meals throughout the day instead of three square meals helps. Eating foods rich in vitamins like fruits and veggies are essential. Appetite will increase as treatment ends.
How can I deal with diarrhea?
Diarrhea may occur after radiation to the abdomen (or pelvic area). This condition usually responds to simple measures such as nonprescription drugs or medications prescribed by your doctor. A low-residue diet avoiding fresh fruits, vegetables, and fried foods may also help. Occasionally, treatment will have to be suspended until the symptoms subside.
What should I look out for if I'm receiving head and neck radiation?
Some people who receive radiation to the head and neck experience redness and irritation in the mouth, a dry mouth, trouble swallowing, changes in taste, or nausea. Other possible side effects include a loss of taste, earaches, and swelling. You may lose your hair, your skin texture might change, and your jaw may feel stiff. If you receive radiation therapy to the head or neck, you need to take good care of your teeth, gums, mouth, and throat.
What should I look out for if I'm receiving chest and breast radiation?
Radiation treatment to the chest may cause problems when swallowing, development of a cough, or shortness of breath. Be sure to tell your doctor or nurse if you notice any of these side effects.
What if I receive radiation after a lumpectomy or mastectomy?
If you receive radiation therapy after a lumpectomy or mastectomy for breast cancer, try to go without wearing a bra whenever you can. If this is not possible, wear a soft cotton bra so that your skin is not irritated. If your shoulders feel stiff, ask your doctor or nurse about exercises to keep your arms moving freely. Other side effects may include breast soreness and swelling from fluid buildup in the treated area. These side effects, as well as skin reddening or tanning, most likely will go away a month or two after you finish radiation therapy.
What are the side effects of stomach and abdomen radiation?
If you are having radiation treatment to the stomach or some part of the abdomen, you may have vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea. Your doctor can prescribe medicines to relieve these problems. Check with your doctor or nurse about any home remedies you are thinking about taking during your treatment.
How can I manage my nausea?
Some patients report feeling queasy for a few hours right after radiation therapy. If you have this problem, do not eat for several hours before your treatment. You may be able to handle the treatment better on an empty stomach. After treatment, you may want to wait 1 to 2 hours before eating. If the problem persists, ask your doctor about medicines to prevent and treat nausea. Be sure to take the medicine as prescribed.
What are the side effects of pelvic radiation?
If you receive radiation therapy to any part of the pelvis, you might have one or more of the digestive problems already described. You also may have some irritation of your bladder, which can be uncomfortable and cause you to urinate often.
What are the effects of radiation on female fertility?
- DO NOT TRY to become pregnant during radiation therapy because radiation can harm the fetus. Women should discuss with their doctor their birth control options and how radiation may affect their fertility. If you are pregnant, let your doctor know before beginning treatment.
- Depending on the radiation dose, women having radiation therapy in the pelvic area may stop having their menstrual periods and have other symptoms of menopause. Treatment also can result in vaginal itching, burning, and dryness. Report these symptoms to your doctor so you can learn about options for relieving these side effects.
What about the effects of radiation on male fertility?
For men, radiation therapy to an area that includes the testes can reduce both the number of sperm and their ability to function. This does not mean though that pregnancy cannot occur. If you want to father a child and are concerned about reduced fertility, talk to your doctor before starting treatment. One option may be to bank your sperm ahead of time.