When you have radiation treatment for cancer, your body goes through some changes.
About 2 - 3 weeks after your first radiation treatment, you may have these side effects:
Your skin over the treated area may turn red, start to peel, get dark, or itch.
Your body hair will fall out, but ONLY in the area being treated. When your hair grows back, it may be different than before.
You may have bladder discomfort. You may have to urinate often. It may burn when you urinate.
You may have diarrhea and cramping in your belly.
Woman may have:
Itchiness, burning, or dryness in the vaginal area
Menstrual periods that stop or change
Both men and women may lose interest in sex.
When you have radiation treatment, a health care provider draws colored markings on your skin. Do not remove them. These show where to aim the radiation. If they come off, do not redraw them. Tell your doctor if they come off. These must stay there until your treatments are done.
Take care of the treatment area:
Wash gently with lukewarm water only. Do not scrub. Pat your skin dry.
Do NOT use soaps. Do not use lotions, ointments, perfumed powders, or other perfumed products on this area. Ask your doctor what is okay to use.
Keep the area that is being treated out of the direct sun.
Do not scratch or rub your skin.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any break or opening in your skin.
Do not put heating pads or ice bags on the treatment area. Wear loose-fitting clothing around the stomach and pelvis.
Woman should not wear girdles or pantyhose.
Cotton underwear is best.
Keep buttocks and pelvic areas clean and dry.
If you have lymphedema, your doctor or nurse will watch for any skin breakdown, especially in bony areas such as your hips, knees, and elbows.
Do not take a laxative. Drink plenty of liquids: 8 to10 glasses of fluids a day. Avoid orange juice, grapefruit juice, and other citrus juices.
Your doctor may place you on a low-residue diet that limits the amount of roughage you eat. You need to eat enough protein and calories to keep your weight up.
Ask your doctor about liquid food supplements. These can help you get enough calories. Ask your doctor about medicine to help with diarrhea or the need to urinate often.
Most people who get radiation treatment begin to feel tired after a few days. If you feel tired:
Do not try to do too much in a day. You probably will not be able to do everything you are used to doing.
Try to get more sleep at night. Rest during the day when you can.
Take a few weeks off work, or work less.
Watch out for early signs of edema. Tell the doctor if you have:
Feelings of tightness in your leg
Feelings of tightness in your shoes or socks
Weakness in your leg
Pain, aching, or heaviness in your arm or leg
Redness, swelling, or signs of infection
It is normal to have less interest in sex during and right after radiation treatments end. If this is true for you, your interest in sex will probably come back after your treatment is over and your life starts to get back to normal.
Both men and women should be able to enjoy sex safely after radiation treatment is over.
Women who get radiation treatment in their pelvic have may have shrinking or tightening of their vagina. Your doctor or nurse will advise you about using a dilator, which can help gently stretch the walls of your vagina. Ask about using a dilator after your radiation treatment is over.
Your doctor may check your blood counts regularly, especially if the radiation treatment area on your body is large.
Sharma RA, Vallis KA, McKenna WG. Basics of radiation therapy. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 29.
Smith JA, Jhingran A. Principles of radiation therapy and chemotherapy in gynecologic cancer: basic principles, uses, and complications. In: Lentz GM, Lobo RA, Gershenson DM, Katz VL, eds. Comprehensive Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2012:chap 27.
LinLinda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.