Patient Care: Vanderbilt Department of Radiation Oncology

Care During Treatment

Get plenty of rest. Many patients experience fatigue during radiation therapy, so it is important to make sure you are well rested.

Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. A nutritionist, nurse or physician may work with you to ensure you are receiving the right calories, vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat and that you are eating the proper type of foods. With certain types of treatment, it may be necessary to modify your diet to minimize side effects. You should not attempt to lose weight during radiation therapy, since you require more calories due to your cancer and treatment.

Treat the skin that is exposed to radiation with extra care. The skin in the area receiving treatment may become red and sensitive. Your radiation oncology nurse will review specific instructions for caring for your skin with you. Some guidelines include:

  • Cleanse the skin daily with warm water and a mild soap recommended by your nurse.
  • Avoid using any lotions, perfumes, deodorants or powders in the treatment area unless approved by your doctor or nurse. Try not to use products containing alcohol and perfumes.
  • Avoid putting anything hot or cold on the treated skin. This includes heating pads and ice packs.
  • Protect the treated area from the sun by using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. If possible, avoid exposing the treated area to the sun altogether.

Seek out emotional support. There are many emotional demands that you must cope with during your cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is common to feel anxious, depressed, afraid or hopeless. At times, it may help to talk about your feelings with a close friend, family member, nurse, social worker or psychologist. To find a support group in your area, ask your radiation oncology nurse.

Managing Side Effects

Patients often experience little or no side effects from the radiation therapy and are able to continue their normal routines. However, some patients do feel some discomfort from the treatment. Be sure to talk to a member of your radiation oncology treatment team about any problems you may have.

Many of the side effects of radiation therapy are related to the area that is being treated. For example, a breast cancer patient may notice skin irritation, like a mild to moderate sunburn, while a patient with cancer in the mouth may have soreness when swallowing. These side effects are usually temporary and can be treated by your doctor or other members of the treatment team.

Side effects usually begin by the second or third week of treatment, and they may last for several weeks after the final radiation treatment. In rare instances, serious side effects develop after radiation therapy is finished. Your radiation oncologist and radiation oncology nurse are the best people to advise you about the side effects you may experience. Talk with them about any side effects you are having. They can give you information about how to manage them and may prescribe medicines that can help relieve your symptoms.

The side effect most often reported by patients receiving radiation is fatigue. The fatigue patients experience is usually not very severe, and patients can often continue all or some of their normal daily activities with a reduced schedule. Many patients continue to work full time during radiation therapy.

Many patients are concerned that radiation therapy will cause another cancer. In fact, the risk of developing a second tumor because of radiation therapy is very low. For many patients, radiation therapy can cure your cancer. This benefit far outweighs the very small risk that the treatment could cause a later cancer. If you smoke, the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of a second cancer is quit smoking.

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