Radiation therapy is an essential part of cancer treatment which is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy. Whether it is employed along with other treatments or on its own, radiotherapy is very effective for both small cell and non-small cell lung cancer, as well as for mesothelioma, and it can greatly improve your prognosis. If cancer is timely detected, high doses of radiation applied frequently to the affected region of the body can even lead to remission. Nevertheless, while radiotherapy has numerous benefits for cancer patients, it also brings about a series of significant side effects.
The side effects of radiotherapy include fatigue, sore skin, loss of appetite, nausea and hair loss. While the majority of these symptoms subside within several weeks after treatment is completed, some patients experience late side effects as well. The extent of radiation therapy side effects varies from person to person and will highly depend on factors such as the dose of radiation, the frequency of treatment sessions, the targeted area of the body, and the type of radiation you receive. In order to reduce the negative effects, your doctor will prescribe you radioprotective drugs to take prior to each session, as well as recommend you an appropriate moisturizer to protect your skin.
Regardless of the severity of your side effects, there is always something you can do to alleviate your discomfort at least temporarily. We have compiled a list of five tips which will hopefully make your cancer treatment less unpleasant.
1. Take special care of your skin
Skin problems are perhaps the most common side effect of radiotherapy. Most patients notice a change in the appearance of their skin after their first treatment session, as the radiation used to shrink or eliminate malignant cells is very powerful and can easily harm healthy tissue as well. The skin can become irritated, swollen or red, while radiation dermatitis – a condition which causes your skin to be dry, itchy and flaky – can also develop after multiple treatment sessions.
Although these symptoms usually disappear following the completion of radiotherapy, they can be very bothersome during treatment. Moreover, your skin may suffer some permanent changes in the long run, such as becoming darker and more sensitive. Therefore, taking care of the affected area both during and after radiation therapy is very important. Here are some helpful suggestions:
- avoid scratching or rubbing the area
- mild soaps and unscented body lotions can alleviate skin irritation
- use a water-based moisturizer after each radiotherapy session
- itchiness can be significantly improved by applying a hydrocortisone or aloe vera cream on the affected skin region
- if you need to cover your skin with a bandage, opt for paper tape or for other products for sensitive skin and avoid adhesive tape
- avoid hot water while showering or taking a bath, as it can further irritate your skin
- do not use loofahs, sponges, scrub brushes and washcloths
- do not apply alcohol on the treated area
- avoid putting makeup, powder, perfume, scented lotion or aftershave on the affected skin region
We strongly advise you to consult with your doctor before applying any product on your skin. They will also be able to tell you how frequently you should use lotion or moisturizer and whether certain products are suitable or not. Similarly, if you experience distressing symptoms such as fever, pain, a rash on the treated skin area or extreme swelling, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
2. Wear loose-fitting, soft clothing to avoid additional skin irritation
Radiotherapy will cause considerable irritation to your skin even after your first treatment. Even if you use lotion or moisturizer on a regular basis, wearing tight clothes can feel very uncomfortable and may further irritate your skin. Additionally, rough textures such as wool or denim can also prevent your skin from healing properly, so choosing loose-fitting, soft clothing made of cotton or other similar fabrics is recommended. You should also avoid starching your clothes. The fabric of your sheets is important as well. Soft fabrics which will reduce skin irritation are preferable once again.
3. Bring a family member or a friend with you for emotional support
Going to the hospital is rarely something people are looking forward to and can often be unpleasant or intimidating, especially when it comes to cancer treatments. Having a family member or a close friend accompany you to your radiotherapy sessions might ease your discomfort and anxiety. They can also help you focus on more positive aspects and make you feel less lonely on your way to the treatment center.
Fatigue is another frequently encountered side effect among cancer patients. Because both chemotherapy and radiation therapy result in a low red blood cell count, developing anemia after several treatment sessions is not uncommon. However, fatigue can often appear as a direct consequence of radiation per se or of the drugs involved in chemotherapy. Thereby, while anemia can be successfully treated with appropriate medication or, in severe cases, a blood transfusion, this symptom can still prevent many patients from performing daily activities, including driving.
If you feel too tired to walk or drive to your treatment appointment, you should ask someone to help you. In addition to providing the emotional support you need, your loved ones will certainly be willing to assist you with practical aspects as well. The effects of cancer treatments can hinder your normal functioning and impact your daily life to a great extent, so we encourage you to ask for help whenever you are not feeling well.
4. Avoid direct exposure to sunlight
As a result of repeated exposure to high levels of radiation, your skin will become very sensitive to sunlight. For this reason, you should not keep the area which received treatment in the sun. Nevertheless, this may not always be possible and thus, when sunlight cannot be avoided, it is recommended to cover the affected skin region with dark clothing and to apply PABA-free sunscreen with a protection factor of at least 30 before going outside if your medical care team approves. You should also stay away from tanning beds. It is crucial to continue protecting your skin properly after treatment, and direct exposure to sunlight should be strictly avoided several years following the completion of radiotherapy.
5. Do not hesitate to ask for help with daily tasks
Undergoing treatment for cancer brings about a series of major lifestyle changes for most patients, as well as numerous challenges and obstacles. Besides the unpleasant side effects, battling cancer also entails tremendous emotional distress. Therefore, benefiting from a strong support system throughout your journey is vital and can greatly relieve feelings of helplessness, frustration, and anxiety.
However, practical help is very important, too, as you may feel completely overwhelmed or experience intense fatigue on some days during your treatment, which will prevent you from carrying out your usual plans. You should not feel guilty for accepting or seeking help from your family. Managing fatigue is sometimes incredibly difficult and you may find yourself unable to take care of everything you need to, so we have gathered some useful tips which can help you in this respect:
- plan your activities ahead and determine what your priorities are to make sure you will be able to save energy for the most important tasks
- maintain a sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same hours every day so that you will get at least 7 hours of rest
- take a short nap whenever you feel too tired
- ask your family to help you with specific things such a cleaning your house, grocery shopping or taking care of your children
- exercise regularly – low-intensity activities such as walking, swimming or yoga have been proved to have beneficial effects on your health, as well as improve side effects like loss of appetite and fatigue