Radiation Therapy – dealing with the side effects

November 12, 2012

Radiation Therapy – dealing with the side effects

The side effect that each patient receiving radiation therapy will experience varies and depends on the kind of radiation therapy they are receiving and the dosage. The following are some examples of possible side effects and suggestions for ways of dealing with them in every day life.

Loss of hair

Approximately 2 weeks after radiation therapy has begun most patients will start to lose their hair. This is one of the earliest and most upsetting side effects. Normally the area being treated is the most effected but some people experience complete hair loss. It will happen quickly with hair coming out in clumps and should begin to return a short period of time after receiving therapy. In some cases, particularly if doses of radiation are very high hair loss over the area being treated can be permanent. Other reactions include hair growing back a different colour of texture than it was originally.

There are some things you can do to prepare for and minimise hair loss. Cut your hair short to reduce the weight of it and use satin pillowcases to prevent your hair form getting tangled. Use very gentle treatments on your hair whilst it is growing back such as baby shampoo and an infant brush set or comb. Be prepared with a wig, caps or scarves before starting your treatment. Wigs can now be made with your own hair if you prefer and in some cases the expense will be covered by your insurance.

Irritable skin

It is likely that during and after radiation therapy for the area being treated to become itchy and sore. This should be treated by a physician so inform your nurse or doctor as soon as it occurs. To attempt to prevent skin irritation, use only mild skin shampoo such as baby shampoo and only use products that your doctor has approved. Keep your skin protected and out of the sun at all times and refrain from using any kind of ice or heat pack on your scalp.

Problems hearing

Problems with hearing can occur when the area being treated is near the ears and causes earwax to harden. Your doctor can help with this so let them know as soon as you notice any difficulty hearing.

Sickness and Nausea

When having radiation therapy to the brain or radiation combined with chemotherapy, nausea and vomiting are common side effects. There are methods such as relaxation and biofeedback available which often help to control the side effects. There is also some medication called an antiemetic, which is normally very effective and can be prescribed by your doctor. Also try to stay away from strong smelling food and fatty, sweet or spicy foods and drink plenty of water.

Variations in Appetite

Patients have been known to both lose and gain weight during treatment but it is important to eat a balanced diet throughout treatment. If you are losing weight, try eating small means frequently and have nutritional snacks on hand for whenever you are feeling hungry. For patients on steroids, there is not much you can do to prevent weight gain. Just eat as much low fat, low calorie foods as possible.

Fatigue and Drowsiness and Decreased libido

Radiation therapy is a lot to go through and most people experience fatigue and drowsiness at some point. Make sure a family member or your doctor is aware if you are feeling abnormally tired or drowsy and confused. Tiredness or a change in hormones could lead to decreased sex drive. Be open with your partner so they do not feel shut out and understand that your libido will return once treatment has finished.

Other side effects

Acute reaction can temporarily occur after radiation therapy causing symptoms such as headaches, double vision and impaired speech. Between 1-3 months after treatment you may experience early delayed reactions such as lack of energy and loss of appetite but you should inform your doctor of any delayed or late side effects you get so that they can treat you accordingly.

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