There may be some side effects from radiation therapy for certain types of treatments. Your doctor can explain the potential risks in detail – and, if necessary, give you some medications to help.

Is radiation therapy radioactive?

Radiation therapy doesn’t make you radioactive. When your treatment is finished, you can go home, play with your children or grandchildren, carry on working, and resume your normal routine. You don’t need to worry about putting anyone around you at risk.

Will I feel tired?

Feeling tired is the most common side effect of radiation therapy.

You feel tired because your body has to use more energy to heal itself after each treatment.

People have described this feeling as the entire body feeling too heavy to move.

Stress, medications and the time spend travelling to medical appointments can also make you feel more tired than usual.

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How can I manage the tiredness?

During your treatment program, it’s important to rest a lot – and nap during the day if you can.

Managing your time, prioritising your essential tasks, and asking – and accepting – help from others will also help you manage your tiredness.

While we want you to get enough rest, we don’t recommend complete bed rest or being too still all the time. Light exercise – even a 20-minute walk – can also help to make you feel less tired.

Establish a good sleep routine, and practice relaxation techniques if you’re feeling anxious about your treatments.

If you’re finding it hard to sleep, please talk to your doctor.

Will my skin change?

Because your skin constantly regenerates, it often reacts to radiation.

The most common reaction is erythema—a drying and reddening of the skin that can appear on or within the treated area.

Other reactions can be skin inflammation, dry skin, moist skin, and skin peeling.

Before your treatment begins, our nursing staff will give you advice and resources to help you care for your skin.

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Some general tips to help you look after your skin during treatment include:

  • Use moisturiser or vitamin E cream – apply cream to the treated area to help keep your skin nourished. This also maintains skin integrity and reduces the chance of reddening. Choose moisturisers that don’t contain alcohol or fragrances, so they don’t irritate your skin.
  • Take care of the treatment area – don’t rub it or scratch it, and try to keep it cool and away from extreme heat.
  • Avoid deodorants in the treated area – underarm deodorants are fine, but avoid using them in the treated area if it starts to become sensitive. You will be given advice from your local nursing team about how best to use deodorants.

Will I lose any hair?

Hair loss is an unfortunate side effect of radiation therapy, and you may find you lose some hair – either temporarily or permanently – in the area that’s being treated.

In many cases, your hair will grow back when your treatment has finished – though it may not be as thick as it was before your treatment.

How long will my hair take to grow back?

This depends on the dose of radiation you have received – as well as how long you were receiving treatment for. For most people, hair grows back within 6-12 months of finishing their treatment.

Sometimes, after a large treatment, your hair may not recover completely and may appear patchy.

We understand that, for many people, this can be a very upsetting and stressful aspect of your treatment – but there are many options to help you cope and manage your changing appearance.

Please speak with us if you’re feeling concerned or anxious about hair loss.

Will I get lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is swelling that occurs as a result of the build-up of lymphatic fluid in your tissues. It can often occur after radiation therapy.

Some people are more at risk of developing lymphoedema than others. Your medical team will assess your level of risk and give you some prevention and management exercises if necessary.

How is lymphoedema treated?

There’s no cure for lymphoedema, so it’s important to take steps to prevent it – especially if you are at risk.

If you do experience symptoms of lymphoedema your radiation oncologist or radiation specialist nurse will be able to provide you with a referral for professional diagnosis and management strategies.

Your radiation oncologist or radiation oncology nurse can help you to understand how to manage this side effect. You may also need a referral to a professional lymphoedema management centre.

What if I’m not coping?

It’s very common to feel anxious, stressed or like you’re unable to cope during this challenging time.

We understand this is an incredibly emotional experience, and there will be many ups and downs along the way. Remember, you don’t have to go through this alone – we’re here to support you at every stage of your cancer experience.

Please talk to your radiation oncologist or radiation oncology nurse if you’re feeling like you’re unable to cope. Our team can find you services and resources to help with your specific concerns – and, we can help you fast track an appointment if necessary.

Also, the Cancer Council is a wonderful resource, and has information about a wide range of options.

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How can I best look after my health?

Making your health a priority can help you to feel better before, during and after your treatments. If you have specific questions about your diet, ask to speak with an oncology dietitian.

It’s also vital you keep your gums and teeth healthy before and during treatment. Doing this helps to reduce the severity of side effects – and it can prevent longer-term problems with your mouth and teeth.

Remember, taking care of yourself is essential. Aim to:

  • Exercise regularly – light walking in the fresh air, for example
  • Eat a healthy diet, full of fresh wholesome food – including plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Get enough sleep every night – aim for 8 hours
  • Relax, and reduce stress – meditation can help
  • Laugh – and spend time with your loved ones
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