Radiation therapy side effects: 5 tips to cope

Like many types of cancer treatment, radiation therapy can cause side
effects and have a profound impact on patients. Many of my patients
suffer from lack of sleep, malnutrition, fatigue and skin irritation, and some aren’t quite sure how
to cope.

The good news is that there are some things you can do to ease the
side effects of radiation therapy and maintain your health and sanity.
Here’s what I recommend.

Get enough sleep during radiation therapy

Many patients have trouble sleeping after receiving a cancer
diagnosis, while others begin to experience fatigue near the end of
radiation therapy. Exhaustion and lack of sleep can affect your mood
and make it harder to manage the stress of cancer treatment.

But simple strategies, such as practicing a nighttime ritual,
writing down your worries and avoiding naps, can help you cope with insomnia during treatment. It’s also important
that you talk to your doctor about fatigue and insomnia since these
issues often go undiagnosed. Get more tips to cope with insomnia.

Treat skin exposed to radiation with TLC

The skin in the area where you’re receiving radiation therapy may
become red and sensitive, similar to a sunburn. Your radiation
oncology nurse will review specific instructions for caring for your
skin with you, so it’s important to take note. Some of the things your
nurse will tell you include:

  • Don’t wash off our marks from the radiation simulation. These
    help us ensure we’re direction the radiation to the right place
    during your actual treatment.
  • Clean the skin gently with
    warm water and a mild soap.
  • Avoid using powders, perfumes,
    lotions, aluminum deodorants and products containing alcohol in the
    treatment area unless approved by your oncology nurse.
  • Avoid putting anything hot (heating pads) or cold (ice packs)
    directly on the treated skin.
  • If you spend time outdoors,
    wear a hat or clothing to protect your skin. After treatment, use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher.  

Maintain a well-balanced diet

Many cancer patients face malnutrition because
they struggle with nausea or can’t get enough nutrients during treatment.

While certain types of radiation therapy may require a change in
your diet to minimize side effects like malnutrition and nausea, it’s
important to maintain your weight. It’s also important to remember
that radiation therapy is not the time to start a weight loss program.

If you’re an MD Anderson patient, ask
your doctor for a referral to one of our dietitians. With their help,
you make sure you’re eating the right foods and getting the vitamins
and minerals you need.

Commit to physical activity

For patients that are up for it and are already physically active,
exercising during radiation therapy can help with fatigue, mood issues
and stress management. Even going for a walk for a few minutes can
help. We generally do not recommend starting a new rigorous training
program during radiation. Use this guide to learn about the benefits of
physical activity for cancer survivors and how to get started.

Get the support you need

During your cancer diagnosis and treatment, you’re likely to
experience an array of emotions, including anxiety, depression, fear
or hopeless. It may help to talk about your feelings with a close
friend, family member, chaplain or other spiritual leader, nurse, social work counselor or psychologist. To find a
support group in your area, talk to your radiation oncology nurse or
another member of your MD Anderson care
team. MD Anderson has many support groups for patients and caregivers.
There are many support groups that meet in person, over the phone or online.

Most importantly, call your doctor if you experience any unusual
symptoms during radiation therapy. We’re here to support you
throughout your radiation therapy experience, and we want you to
remember that you’re not alone.


Pamela J. Schlembach,M.D., is professor of
Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson in The Woodlands.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.