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Managing Radiation Side Effects

Though Side Effects are Minimal, Managing Them is Important

Patients often experience little or no side effects from radiation therapy and are able to continue their normal routines.  However, you should be prepared for side-effects from your treatment and be willing to follow the advice of your radiation oncology team for any problems you may have. It is important to note that in most cases the patient is not in any way radioactive and can participate in normal activities such as working and can be in close proximity to loved ones and friends including children and pregnant women. In the limited instances where the patient is mildly radioactive they will be given specific instructions on necessary precautions to protect themselves and others.

Many of the side effects of radiation therapy are related to the area that is being treated.  For example, irradiated skin can become "suntanned" or even "sunburned", while a patient who has cancer in the throat may have soreness when swallowing.  These side effects are usually temporary and can be treated by your doctor or other members of the treatment team.

Side effects usually begin in the second or third week of treatment, and they may last for several weeks after the final radiation treatment.  In rare instances, serious side effects develop after radiation therapy is finished.  Your radiation oncologist and radiation oncology nurse are the best people to advise you about the nature of the side effects you may experience.  They can give you information about how to manage them and may prescribe medicines that can help relieve your symptoms.

The side effect most often reported by patients receiving radiation is fatigue.  The fatigue patients experience is usually not very severe, and patients can often continue all or some of their normal daily activities.  Many patients continue to work full time during radiation therapy.

Many patients are concerned that radiation therapy will cause another cancer.  In fact, the risk of developing a second tumor because of radiation therapy is very low.  For many patients, radiation therapy can cure your cancer.  This benefit far outweighs the very small risk that the treatment could cause a later cancer.  If you smoke, the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of a second cancer is quit smoking.