Cancer Treatment: Side Effects of Radiation

Radiation is an effective treatment for cancer, but the side effects can be harsh. The negative effects are not the same for all individuals and can vary depending on the type of cancer, its location, radiation dosage, and the overall health of the patient. 

What causes the side effects?

The side effects are usually the result of high radiation doses which destroy cancerous cells, but also damage the healthy cells and tissues which are adjacent. Though there have been considerable improvements in the process, technique, and precision of radiation therapy, some side effects still remain. 

What are the common side effects of radiation?

The following are some common side effects of radiation.

Skin problems

Many patients complain about skin problems ranging from dryness and blisters to peeling skin. There may also be some patches of itchiness. Generally, the skin conditions tend to improve within a few weeks after the treatment is over. If the radiation has caused severe skin damage, let your doctor know and she may change the dosage or reschedule your treatment if possible.


You may feel constantly tired. Cancer related fatigue is different from a general feeling of tiredness, which usually goes away with proper rest. But this fatigue does not improve even if you take adequate rest. Moreover, if you are undergoing chemotherapy along with radiation, your fatigue levels might increase. Fatigue could also be the result of anemia, pain, depression or some drugs, like steroids. If the cause of your fatigue can be traced to its root, address it so you can feel better.

Site-specific side-effects

Some side effects could be specific to the site of the radiation.

Radiation to the head and neck area can cause problems like dry mouth, mouth sores, nausea, and difficulty in swallowing. This can lead to lower food intake and consequently, weight loss. Radiation therapy can also cause tooth decay. It is a good idea to consult a dentist before radiation is started.

Radiation therapy to the chest may result in stiff shoulders, shortness of breath, and soreness of the breast or nipples.

Radiation to the stomach and abdomen may cause diarrhea or vomiting, which is usually relieved after treatment. Small changes in the diet can help to a certain extent while undergoing treatment.

Radiation therapy of the pelvis can lead to side effects such as rectal bleeding, bladder irritation, and sexual problems. It can have an effect on the reproductive system of both men and women. For men, impotence and low sperm count are common side effects of radiation to the prostate or testes. Women may stop having their menstrual periods because of radiation. If both ovaries are subject to radiation, it could also result in permanent infertility. 

When do the side effects begin?

Some people notice very few side effects or none at all, while for others the experience can be quite harrowing. The problems usually show up around the second week of radiation or a little later and continue for several weeks or months after the treatment is over. The cancer care team generally provides palliative care to help the patient get through it.

After the completion of treatment, most of the side effects gradually diminish with time. There could be some long-term effects which may show up much later. This includes joint problems, lymphedema (lymphatic obstruction) or even recurrence of cancer. Bear in mind that the chances of recurrence because of radiation are negligible and this should not deter you from undergoing radiation therapy to treating the primary cancer.

Ask your doctor about possible side effects before the treatment commences. Keep your cancer care team informed about everything that you experience. There are medicines and other complementary therapies which can help manage the severity of side effects. Depending on your choice, your team may be able to suggest the best options for you.

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