About Side Effects

Radiation therapy side effects can be categorised as either short term (early) or long term (late) effects. Short term effects are those that occur during your treatment and gradually resolve in the weeks and months after completion. Whereas long term effects are those that can potentially develop in the years following treatment.

The type of effects you may experience and their severity depend on several factors that include:

  • Location of treatment site
  • Radiation dose administered
  • General health
  •  Individual physiology

Unfortunately there is no way to accurately predict the degree or timing of effects you may experience. This is because each patient has a unique physiology that responds to treatment in an individual manner.

However, there are some short term effects that patients commonly experience. These effects do not occur straight away, instead they slowly develop over the course of your treatment and subsequently resolve after its completion.

Common effects

Skin changes
Skin changes may include dryness, redness, itching, peeling, or blistering. These changes occur because radiation therapy damages healthy skin cells and capillaries in the treatment area. This area includes the region where the radiation enters and exits your body. Most skin changes resolve after treatment is complete however there may be permanent changes to skin pigmentation.

During and after your radiation therapy special care of the skin in the treatment area may be required. Your doctor and nursing team will provide advice regarding this care.

Read more about skin changes

Fatigue is a very common side effect of radiation therapy. There is a good chance that you may feel fatigued during your treatment and for some weeks after its completion. This feeling is usually caused by the body consuming energy to repair cells damaged by the treatment. Fatigue from radiation therapy can range from a mild lack of energy to significant tiredness and there can be a number of contributing factors. If you do feel tired, prioritise your daily activities and try to get some rest. Gentle exercise each day has been shown to help improve fatigue.

Hair loss
Radiation therapy only causes hair loss within the treatment area. This means that you will only lose hair from your head if your head is being treated. Radiation therapy induced hair loss may be temporary or permanent depending on the radiation dose administered.

If you are having radiation therapy to the head area your hair will usually grow back but it may not be as thick as before. The time it takes and the way it grows back depends on the radiation dose you have received and the duration of treatment.

While there are other common side effects that can occur the above effects tend to be experienced by all patients to differing degrees.

Some important points to remember about side effects are.

  • Side effects are different for each person.
  • Some people have many side effects, others have hardly any, even when receiving a similar treatment course.
  • Side effects may be more severe if you also receive chemotherapy before, during, or after your radiation therapy.

Your radiation oncologist will discuss in detail all relevant short and long term side effects related to your individual diagnosis and treatment requirements.

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