Radiotherapy Side Effects

4th May 2017  

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays, which can be delivered externally via targeted beams or internally via a radioactive source placed inside the body. Radiotherapy can be very effective at destroying cancer cells in a localised area however, because it can also damage surrounding tissue, radiotherapy can cause side effects. We look at the most common radiotherapy side effects.

Tiredness following radiotherapy

You will probably find that you feel tired or that everyday activities tire you out more quickly after radiotherapy. It can take your body a while to recover so this tiredness may continue for a few weeks. Plenty of rest and light exercise should help and don’t be afraid to ask for help with daily activities.

radiotherapy side effects

Eating and sickness problems following radiotherapy

Some people, especially those undergoing treatment near to the head or stomach, will feel sick during or immediately after radiotherapy. This can be managed with antiemetic (anti sickness) medication.

Other issues related to eating are a radiotherapy side effect for a number of reasons; these are often due to the location of the treatment:

  • The mouth can become sore, ulcerated and uncomfortable
  • Tiredness and sickness can result in a lack of appetite
  • Swallowing can be uncomfortable
  • Diarrhoea can result from treatment to the stomach or pelvic area but can be treated with medication

Sexual and fertility issues following radiotherapy

Radiotherapy can cause both men and women to experience a loss of sexual appetite and, depending on the treatment area, a reduction in fertility. Sexual appetite will usually return a few weeks after treatment and it is possible to store both eggs and sperm before treatment begins. For both men and women there are other, less common, radiotherapy side effects that are dependent on the area that is being treated.

side effects of radiotherapy

Issues with joints and muscles following radiotherapy

Joint pain and muscle stiffness may be experienced within the area that is being treated by radiotherapy. These can both be alleviated through gentle exercise and stretches and you may be referred to a physiotherapist.

Hair loss following radiotherapy

Like chemotherapy, radiotherapy can often cause hair loss but it will only ever do so within the area that is being treated. Hair loss won’t start until 2 to 3 weeks after treatment and, unless you have had a particularly high dose, hair is likely to regrow.

Lymphoedema following radiotherapy

Lymphoedema is a reaction of your immune system to the radiotherapy treatment. Your lymphatic system around the area of treatment can be damaged. The lymphatic system deals with your body’s removal of toxins and waste and if it is damaged there may be a build up of fluid and related pain or swelling. Regular exercise and taking care of your skin may help with lymphoedema and there are treatments available.

Skin side effects following radiotherapy

Because external radiotherapy involves directing high energy beams it can cause skin reactions. These are not immediate and usually occur around a fortnight after treatment. Reactions can include pinker or darker skin, tender or itchy skin, dry and peeling skin, weeping skin or blisters.

radiotherapy treatment

Not everybody suffers skin problems after radiotherapy and different factors can influence this, including the dose and length of your treatment, the presence of any existing skin conditions, the position of the energy beams on your body (folds of skin may be more vulnerable) and your general health (including smoking, weight and age). If you are having chemotherapy at the same time as radiotherapy you may be more prone to skin reactions.

Skin reactions usually calm down within 2-4 weeks following your treatment but during that time there are some things that you can do to give your skin the best chance of recovery and protection:

  • Select clothing that is loose fitting and made of natural fibres
  • Avoid exposing your skin to the sun (use a high SPF for at least a year if you do)
  • Keep your skin clean with perfume free soap and water
  • Dry your skin carefully, patting it with a towel
  • Avoid shaving or using creams or waxes to remove hair
  • If your skin is unbroken, use a normal deodorant
  • Avoid swimming until any skin reaction has settled down

One of the things that may help with unpleasant radiotherapy side effects in the skin is the careful application of a cooling treatment gel. Water-Jel Advanced Skin Defence contains Lactokine and is a simple 2-step radiotherapy side effect treatment plan.

The plan consists of 2 Radiaderm products, the R1 Cooling Gel, which cools, soothes and rehydrates the skin and the R2 Soothing Lotion, which continues the rehydration process and smooths damaged skin.

Radiotherapy is an effective and often very necessary treatment for people with cancers of all types. If you are worried about any side effects get in touch with your treatment team and explain your concerns. There are a number of tried and tested ways of alleviating radiotherapy side effects that can make your treatment easier to deal with and your recovery smoother.