At the consultation visit before treatment begins, Dr. Wooten will talk to you about the side effects you may experience, how long they last and the severity. Please ask any questions you have about what to expect. Radiation therapy is highly targeted so side effects are limited mostly limited to the area being treated. For example, your hair will not fall out unless the cancer is next to hair. The only exception is that most people experience some fatigue from treatments so it is important to maintain a healthy diet.
Side effects typically do not begin until after the first two weeks of treatments. You should notice gradual changes from week to week; It is not common to have big changes in symptoms day to day from radiation therapy. It is for this reason Dr. Wooten performs weekly treatment visits. It is possible to treat most symptoms when detected early in treatment. Side effects occur because of the type of cancer treated is next to healthy organs at risk to radiation.
Make sure you tell you physician as soon as you experience symptoms. If you experience a side effect, the vast majority are manageable and go away soon after treatment. Until they resolve, make sure to discuss with Dr. Wooten and our team about any changes you notice so they can be treated. It is rare, but if a side effect is particularly severe, treatment may be stopped or delayed until you recover. Here are some common side effects to radiation:
This is the most common side effect during radiation. It is caused by the extra energy used by your body as it heals from therapy and cancer. Stress, weight loss and travel to and from radiation can also contribute. Like most symptoms fatigue begins typically around the third week of treatment and gets gradually worse week to week. Most people can continue to function normally. This tiredness typically resolves by the first follow up visit within 4 weeks of completing treatment. The best thing to do is to limit activities, rest often and get adequate sleep.
Skin irritation occurs when we are treating cancers that involve or are directly beneath the skin. If this happens, be careful not to irritate your skin. Do not apply anything that can irritate your skin. This includes alcohol based products, fragrant creams and most deodorants. Check with Dr. Wooten before applying anything into the treated areas. These reactions are worse in areas where the skin folds on itself. For example, during breast radiation the axilla (armpit) and under the breast have a worse reaction. These skin reactions occur gradually and will be managed and treated weekly. Typically you will notice an itching and/or redness/darkening of the skin during the third week of treatment. Some reactions are worse and require more aggressive therapy such as when we treat anal cancer, head and neck cancer and certain gynecologic cancers. Here are some additional basic tips to care for irritated skin during radiation:
It is sometimes possible to have a decreased appetite and weight loss during therapy. This is especially true if treated for a cancer involving the bowels or if you are receiving chemotherapy with radiation therapy. It is important to maintain weight despite a loss in appetite to maintain energy and help with the healing process. This is done through proper nutrition. You may have to begin dietary supplements to increase fluid, carbohydrate and protein intake. If needed, you can consult with a nutritionist. Here are some tips for maintaining weight:
Bowel symptoms, or Gastrointestinal symptoms, vary depending on the type of cancer treated. For example, if being treated for prostate cancer men can experience loose and/or frequent stools several weeks into treatment. These can get gradually worse week to week and sometime require diet modifications (or over the counter medications). This is the reason we offer hydrogel spacers to our men being treated for prostate cancer. If being treated to the abdomen or pelvis, nausea can also be a problem. Nausea happens early in the course of treatment and is managed with medications prescribed by the physician. Worse side effects can occur but are rare.