The Effects of Radiation Therapy

November 12, 2012

The Effects of Radiation Therapy

Patients who receive radiation therapy all react differently and it is dependent on the overall health of the patient, where the cancer is and if other treatments, e.g. chemotherapy, are being given at the same time. All of this plays a part in how the patient will feel when they are receiving this treatment. There are some patients who experience very little symptoms yet there are others who suffer with a combination of many symptoms.

Radiation therapy is applied locally and this means the symptoms occur in the area of the body that is receiving the treatment. There is now technology that is available which will allow radiation to be used in a more exact manner in treating tumours. And this reduces the risk of side effects developing. There are also studies being carried out to find out ways to protect the healthy cells against the effect of radiation.

Any short term side effects will show in the first couple of weeks of the treatment and once the treatment has been completed, these side effects will disappear.

The long term side effects can develop in months and in some cases years after a patient has received treatment.

After a couple of weeks of the patient receiving radiation therapy irritation of the skin in the treated area can develop. It may turn a red colour and then become very dry and start to peel. As the skin is beginning to heal the patient’s skin may appear a darker colour. Once the treatment has been completed this will disappear but some patients have reported the skin colour remaining slightly darker.

Hair loss can develop in the area that is being treated as a result of this therapy. For example, if a patient had lung cancer and there was chest hair this may be lost.

Another side effect of this treatment is feeling short of breath and a dry cough being experienced by the patient. This is a result of the therapy reducing the amount of surfactant in the lungs. Some patients have been prescribed steroids to provide relief from this side effect.

Fatigue is a common short term side effect and normally appears within a couple of weeks of the therapy beginning and the fatigue becomes worse over time. The fatigue will normally subside 8 weeks after the therapy has been completed. It is essential for the patient to rest during the day and to try and get a restful sleep at night.

Esophatis can be experienced in patients who are receiving treatment to the lungs and because of where the esophagus is located irritation can occur. Some patients have reported suffering from heartburn and difficulty in swallowing or a feeling that they have a lump in their throat. All of these symptoms appear in the first weeks of the treatment and once it is completed the symptoms will subside.

A long term side effect of this treatment is a condition known as radiation pneuomonitis. This can develop between one and six months after the radiation treatment has been completed and may be treated with a course of steroid medication. The symptoms may include being short of breath, cough, fever and certain changes will be seen when an x-ray of the chest is carried out. Between 5% – 15% of patients may develop this and for most patients this will resolve itself over a period of time.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a condition whereby scar tissue in the area of the lungs is formed and there can be many reasons for this developing. One of which is if the patient has lung cancer. The symptoms of this may include not being able to carry out exercise and experiencing shortness of breath.

There have been some reports that radiation therapy that is applied to the chest area can damage the heart. This develops in patients who have received a high dose of radiation in treating tumours and the lymph nodes.

Another possible side effect of radiation therapy is the risk of a secondary cancer developing years after receiving this treatment.

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