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For patients

Side effects

Many people receiving radiation therapy experience no side effects at all. If you have any problems, talk to the treatment staff and they will help you.

Problems that can occur

Some are affected, others not

Radiotherapy affects not only the tumor but also, to some extent, healthy tissue. There is therefore a risk of side effects. People can tolerate different amounts of radiation, so side effects differ from person to person. Many people have no side effects at all.

Side effects of radiotherapy are often divided into early and late effects. Most early side effects are usually noticed after two to three weeks of treatment, but they can come earlier. They do not go away immediately after the last treatment. The peak is often a short time after the end of radiotherapy, then the side effects gradually decrease. Late side effects may be noticed several months, or even years, after the end of radiotherapy.

Early side effects

Temporary skin problems
During radiotherapy, the skin in the treated area may react like a severe sunburn. The most common reaction is redness and irritation, but itching may also occur. These problems may disappear after a few weeks. The armpits, groin and other areas with skin folds are particularly sensitive.

When washing the irradiated area, you can bathe the skin with lukewarm water and pat it dry. Do not rub and avoid strongly perfumed soap or deodorant. There are also ointments and creams that can provide relief. Ask your nurse or doctor what is appropriate to use.

It may be comfortable to wear loose clothing over the treatment area. Textiles that absorb moisture and keep the skin dry are helpful, as moisture can make things worse. Make sure the treated area is not exposed to sun or wind.

You should also avoid shaving the treated area as this irritates the skin. The hair in the treatment area also stops growing after some time.

It is a good idea to eat as well as you can. The body needs a lot of energy and nutrients to heal the skin.

It is common to feel tired during treatment. Some people get a little tired, others get so tired that it affects their lives. Tiredness usually decreases a few weeks after treatment and then disappears completely.

Physical activity can help reduce tiredness. It may also help to rest for short periods during the day on several occasions, rather than taking a longer break.

It is important to remember that tiredness can have other causes than the treatment. It could be due to low blood counts, not eating enough or difficulty sleeping. You may want to talk to a doctor or nurse about your feelings of tiredness.

Some people who receive radiotherapy become nauseous. Some may feel sick early in the treatment, others towards the end of the treatment. If you are affected, there are effective medicines you can take.

Late side effects

Skin changes
The skin in the radiation area may change and feel slightly stiff and hard. Some patients develop small, visible, superficial blood vessels. This is called fibrosis. If the fibrosis causes problems, surgery may be considered.

If you have had treatments to an area with a lot of nerves, you may experience pain, tingling or weakness in the treated area. For example, if you have had radiotherapy to your collarbone, or just above it, you may have symptoms in your arm.

Cancer and cancer treatment can change your body and how you perceive yourself. If you are anxious and depressed during cancer treatment, this can affect your sex drive. If you have a partner, it is good to talk about how you think and feel about this. This can be a way to create closeness and reduce the risk of misunderstandings, for example if someone feels rejected. Body contact and closeness without sexual expectations can strengthen the relationship and bring back the desire.

Radiation against the head

Radiation can affect hair growth so that hair stops growing and falls out where the radiation hits. This applies to head hair, eyelashes and beards. Hair growth outside the treated area is not affected. Hair usually grows back a few months after treatment. However, with higher doses of radiation, you may lose your hair without it growing back. If your hair falls out, you are entitled to a wig and false eyelashes. Ask your contact nurse or your treating physician what applies in your region.

Radiation to the abdominal and pelvic area

Early side effects

Radiation treatment for tumors in the abdominal and pelvic region can cause nausea and other stomach problems, such as diarrhea or a feeling of being sick. The risk of these problems increases if a large area of the body is treated. If you are affected, there are effective medications to treat the nausea.

Radiation therapy to the bladder may cause you to urinate frequently and make it sting when you urinate. There are also medicines to relieve these symptoms.

Late side effects

A late side effect is that the bladder can be affected, leading to incontinence problems. Your bowels may also react, causing diarrhea. If you have any of these problems, a physiotherapist or physiotherapist can help you train your muscles so that you can squat if necessary. There are also medicines to relieve the symptoms. Those who need it can get free incontinence pads from the district nurse.

Women who receive radiotherapy to the pelvis and lower abdomen may have problems with fragile mucous membranes. For example, there may be pain and bleeding during intercourse. Using a lubricant can reduce this problem. The treatment can also cause scar tissue which can lead to a narrowing of the vaginal opening, making a gynecological examination and sexual intercourse more difficult. To prevent this, you can use a dilator, a rod that you insert into the vagina. You can get this at your local clinic. After a while, you may need to change the size.

Radiotherapy for tumors in the abdominal and pelvic region can cause lymphoedema, i.e. a collection of lymphatic fluid in a leg or arm, for example. The body part where the lymphatic fluid has accumulated may become swollen and numb or feel heavy. To reduce these symptoms, it is important to detect the problem early so that treatment can be started as soon as possible.

Radiation to the mouth and throat

Radiation to the throat can affect the taste buds so that the taste changes and in some cases diminishes or disappears. These changes in taste can make eating difficult or unpleasant. A dietician can advise you on how to adapt your diet so that you can eat as well and as varied as possible. Taste usually returns after treatment, but it can take a long time.

The first sign that the lining of the throat is reacting to the radiation is the feeling of a lump in the throat. The irritation can get worse, causing pain and in some cases difficulty in swallowing. In these cases, you may be given medication to relieve the pain, making it easier to swallow and clean your teeth.

Problems in the throat can make it difficult to eat, which can lead to weight loss. It is important that you maintain your weight during radiotherapy, preferably not losing more than a few pounds. Talk to your doctor if you notice that you have lost weight.

Problems in the oral cavity can occur because irritated mucous membranes are more easily attacked by fungus. Good oral hygiene is therefore important.

Another side effect is reduced saliva production, which can reduce your protection against infection. Dry mouth can be relieved with, for example, saliva replacement sprays or lozenges available in pharmacies. It is important that you continue to use these products even after treatment has ended, as dry mouth can become a permanent problem.

Good oral hygiene can reduce the discomfort associated with radiotherapy. During the treatment, it may be useful to have the help of a dental hygienist; talk to your doctor about this.

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