Radiation therapy treats many types of cancer effectively. But like other treatments, it often causes side effects. These are different for each person. They depend on the type of cancer, its location, the radiation therapy dose, and your general health.
Why does radiation therapy cause side effects?
High doses of radiation therapy are used to destroy cancer cells. Side effects occur because radiation therapy can also damage healthy cells and tissues near the treatment area. Today, major advances in radiation technology have made it more precise, leading to fewer side effects.
For some people, radiation therapy causes few or no side effects. For others, the side effects are more severe. Reactions often start during the second or third week of treatment. They may last for several weeks after the final treatment.
Can side effects be prevented or treated?
Yes. Your health care team can help you prevent or treat many side effects. Preventing and treating side effects is an important part of cancer treatment. This type of care is called palliative care .
Common general side effects
Radiation therapy is a local treatment. Therefore, it only affects the area of the body where the tumor is located. For example, people do not usually lose their hair from having radiation therapy. But if radiation therapy is aimed at a part of the body that grows hair, such as the scalp, a person may have hair loss.
Skin problems. Some people who receive radiation therapy experience dryness, itching, blistering, or peeling. But these side effects often depend on which part of the body received radiation therapy. If you develop skin problem, they usually go away a few weeks after treatment has finished. If skin damage becomes a serious problem, the doctor may change your treatment plan.
Fatigue. Fatigue is feeling tired or exhausted almost all the time. Your level of fatigue depends on whether you are having other treatments, such as chemotherapy. Learn more about how to cope with fatigue .
Long-term side effects. Most side effects go away after treatment. But some continue, come back, or develop later. These late effects may include developing a second cancer. However, the risk of having a second cancer because of radiation therapy is low. This risk is often smaller than the benefit of treating the primary, existing cancer.
Side effects specific to where radiation therapy is given
In addition to general side effects, some side effects of therapy depend on the type and location of the radiation.
Head and neck. If radiation therapy is aimed at a person’s head and/or neck, they may experience these side effects:
Mouth and gum sores