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Cancer patients may undergo radiation therapy, which employs high-powered rays to eradicate the disease. The treatment introduces radiation into the body intravenously to target and mitigate the growth of cancer cells. Reports project that 60% of American patients are likely to receive radiation therapy as a significant part of their treatment.
Although radiation therapy has been one of the proverbial solutions to cancer, it is still riddled with potential side effects. The treatment can be harmful because it can ruin DNA, which is responsible for controlling cell growth and division. This alteration of the body can pose different effects on a patient.
If you or your loved one intends to undergo radiation therapy, you must take note of what to anticipate before, during, and after the treatment. Read this article to gain in-depth knowledge and insights into the side effects of radiation therapy. At the same time, you can browse for the best care services you can avail from All American Hospice.
Why Can’t You Have Radiation Twice?
As mentioned above, medical equipment induces radiation within the body to eradicate cancer cells. This method prevents the cancer cells from growing and multiplying further. However, alongside this, radiation from the same treatment can damage healthy cells.
So why can’t you have radiation twice? Acute health impacts can be caused by exposure to very high doses of radiation. Fortunately, radiation therapy is typically a local treatment instead of systemic treatments like chemotherapy for cancer. This means that treatment is usually localized to the area where the cancer is.
Even while the therapy may cause some damage to good tissue in close proximity to the cancer cells, that tissue usually recovers once the cancer cells have been removed. So, you should be wary of the side effects of radiation and how to address them.
Why Do Patients Do Radiation Therapy?
Statistics reveal that radiation therapy is used to treat cancer in more than half of patients. Doctors recommend radiation therapy to treat nearly all cases of cancer, including benign cancers.
Use of Radiation Therapy in Cancer Patients
During the course of your cancer treatment, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the following:
- Radiation therapy serves as the first line of defense against cancer.
- It can aid in preoperative tumor reduction among cancer patients (neoadjuvant treatment).
- It can halt the spread of any leftover cancer cells following surgery (adjuvant therapy).
- It can kill cancer cells in conjunction with other treatments like chemotherapy.
- It can reduce cancer-related symptoms.
How Long Does Radiation Stay in Your Body?
Radiation therapy can cause side effects during treatment or in the hours, days, or weeks following treatment. After complete treatment, most people feel better in a matter of weeks to months. However, as healthy cells require time to recover from the effects of radiation therapy, some side effects may persist even after treatment has ended.
Aftereffects of treatment may manifest months or even years later. Some cells may be irreparably damaged if exposed to sufficiently high levels of radiation. Some of the adverse effects may therefore be long-lasting or even permanent.
Radiation therapy can cause a wide range of potential adverse effects, depending on the following:
- Radiation treatment type
- Section of your body that’s getting treated
- Dose of radiation
- Frequency of treatments
Do Radiation Treatments Make You Sick?
Despite the proven efficacy of radiation treatments in combatting cancer, they can inflict side effects that can make you feel sick. The following sections of the article will delve more into the side effects of radiation treatments, how long they last, and the level of pain after radiation therapy.
How Long Do the Side Effects of Radiation Last?
It would be best if you kept in mind that everyone responds differently to a treatment. Cancer site, radiation dose, and patient health status all have a role in determining the severity and frequency of side effects. There are those who experience no or minimal negative effects, while others may experience several. Accordingly, how long symptoms last varies from person to person.
Don’t forget that the dose and timing of your radiation treatments will determine the nature of any potential adverse effects. After finishing treatment, most people feel better. Since it takes time for healthy cells to recuperate from radiation, some adverse effects may persist even after therapy has ended.
The inability to perform specific tasks may be a side effect. Depending on how you feel, there are different options available to you. While receiving radiation treatment, some people are able to carry on with their normal daily activities. However, some people discover they require more sleep and reduced activity levels. The doctor may temporarily halt your treatments or alter the frequency or type of medication you are receiving if you have uncomfortable or dangerous adverse effects.
Immediate and Long-Term Effects of Radiation Therapy
During therapy or soon after, you may experience some unpleasant symptoms. These adverse events often last no more than a few days and are easily managed if they do occur. As soon as treatment is over, they typically disappear. Early symptoms typically consist of tiredness or lethargy and visible changes to the skin.
The onset of delayed adverse effects may be delayed by months or even years. They can develop in virtually any type of healthy tissue after exposure to radiation. The treated area and the radiation dose both play a role in the potential for long-term complications.
Severe, long-lasting adverse effects may be avoided with cautious treatment planning. Discuss the potential for long-term side effects with your radiation oncologist.
Is Radiation Painful?
Radiation is sent to the patient from an external source in external-beam radiation therapy. To treat cancer, it is the most widely used form of radiation therapy.
The average length of a session is just 15 minutes. When absorbed by the body, radiation causes no discomfort. During the course of your treatment, you may notice a strange odor coming from the device and hear intermittent clicking or buzzing.
The standard treatment schedule entails five weekly meetings held Monday through Friday. According to the specifics of your treatment, this routine may last anywhere from three to nine weeks.
While most patients experience no pain during treatment, they may have discomfort, skin changes, and other adverse effects depending on the area of the body being treated. Your body will have the opportunity to recover from this harm during the weekly two-day treatment break. In some cases, symptoms may persist even after treatment has ended.
Guards against the Side Effects of Radiation Treatment
Radioprotective medications can lessen the harmful effects of radiation therapy, but they can only be used with certain kinds of radiation and in specific body locations. Doctors administer these medications before radiation therapy to shield nearby healthy tissue.
Amifostine is currently the most widely utilized of these antibiotics. People diagnosed with head and neck cancer may take this medication to lessen the side effects of radiation therapy on their mouth and throat.
There is debate amongst medical professionals about the best way to utilize these medications during radiation treatment. Be aware that these medications also have their own set of potential negative effects.
What Are the Side Effects of Radiation?
Fatigue is a state of mental and emotional exhaustion. Around after a week after radiation therapy, most patients begin to experience fatigue, as it is one of the extremely frequent side effects patients encounter. This occurs when radiation treatments kill not just cancer cells but also some healthy ones.
As treatment progresses, fatigue tends to worsen. Fatigue might be exacerbated by the stress of being sick and making regular travels to see a doctor. Combating exhaustion is crucial to providing good care.
Radiation-related fatigue is distinct from regular weariness and may not improve with sleep. It can linger for a long time and interfere with your daily life. However, once therapy is over, the side effects typically disappear.
Only the patient can only determine the severity of their exhaustion. You can’t diagnose your level of exhaustion with a blood test or an x-ray. Reporting your personal levels of weariness to your cancer care team is the gold standard. None, very light, moderate, or severe exhaustion are all possible responses. In the alternative, you may use a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing complete lack of fatigue and 10 being the worst possible state of exhaustion.
When Should You Worry about Fatigue Following Radiation Therapy?
Since the patients themselves are the only ones able to determine their fatigue levels, it is important that they communicate this to their caregivers and doctors. Notify these people about your fatigue level, especially under the following circumstances:
- Your exhaustion does not go away, keeps returning, or even worsens.
- You’re experiencing more significant fatigue than average during and after your usual activities.
- You’re exhausted, and it’s not because of recent activities.
- You may feel disoriented or unable to concentrate.
- You’re bedridden for more than a day.
- Your exhaustion interferes with your ability to participate in regular activities or socialize.
Radiation Dermatitis or Skin Problems
Aside from exhaustion, patients who went through radiation therapy may also experience skin-related issues. Radiation dermatitis is a common name for this. Following radiation treatment, your skin may look red, inflamed, swollen, blistered, burnt, or tanned. You may experience dryness, flaking, itching, or peeling of the skin after a few weeks.
You must communicate any changes to your skin to your healthcare team immediately. Your doctors and caregivers may provide helpful suggestions for relieving pain, reducing inflammation, and avoiding infection.
After therapy is finished, these symptoms often fade away over time. However, there is a chance that the treated skin will retain its darker tone and become more sensitive than it was prior to treatment. Here are some ways you can take care of your skin after radiation therapy:
- Wear loose garments made from soft, silky fibers. Wearing garments that are too constricting, harsh, or stiff is not recommended over the treatment region. You should avoid all items that provide pressure on the area.
- Don’t apply external cold or heat to the treated region. Stick to lukewarm water for washing the treated area.
- Cover up the affected region to avoid sun damage. Your skin may be unusually sensitive to sunlight. Wearing dark clothing or sunscreen when going outside is recommended to protect the treated skin.
Balding or Hair Thinning: Does Radiation Cause Hair Loss?
Thinner or completely lost hair in the treated area is a common side effect of radiation therapy. Hair loss can occur from radiation therapy to the head (including the eyebrows and eyelashes) but not from radiation therapy to the hip.
Although hair usually grows back once treatment is finished, dealing with hair loss in the interim can be traumatic. It’s possible that when your hair does grow back, it will be thinner or of a different texture than before. Discuss your worries regarding hair loss with the cancer care team.
If your hair falls out, you may find your scalp sensitive and wish to hide it. Keep your head cool and protected from the sun by donning a hat or scarf. If you use a wig or other hairpiece, check the inside to be sure it won’t cause any irritation. You can inquire about wigs and headwear at your care providers.
Deficient Blood Count
Blood count variations are a rare side effect of radiation therapy. White blood cells aid the body’s immune system in fighting off infections and stopping excessive bleeding. If your blood counts are too low, your therapy may be put on hold for a week or more. If you’re also undergoing chemotherapy, you’re more likely to experience this complication.
Radiation Side Effects on Specific Parts of the Body
The radiation side effects are situationally dependent. Their severity may vary depending on the body part or region where the patient received treatment. It’s possible to experience certain adverse effects immediately, while others may not manifest themselves quickly.
Below are some side effects of radiation treatments on specific parts of the body.
Effect of Radiation Therapy on the Brain
Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat the entire brain if the cancer has spread from other parts of the body. Radiation therapy to the entire brain can cause serious adverse effects, some of which may not become apparent until weeks or months after treatment has begun.
The following are the short-term radiation treatment side effects on the brain:
- Male pattern baldness
- Debilitating fatigue
- Reduced hearing
- Issues with recalling and expressing ideas
Later-appearing negative effects of radiation on the brain might occur anywhere from six months to several years after treatment has stopped. Cognitive impairment, stroke-like symptoms, and memory loss are all examples of the kinds of catastrophic complications that can manifest later on. Additionally, you may be at higher risk for developing other tumors locally.
Effect of Radiation Therapy Near the Head and Neck
- Chapped lips
- Inability to swallow
- Experiencing tooth decay
- Pain and open sores in the throat or mouth
- The tenseness in the jaw muscles
Instructions for Proper Oral Hygiene While Having Radiation Therapy
Your teeth, gums, mouth, and throat need special care if you have radiation therapy to the head or neck. Some suggestions that may assist you in dealing with dental issues are as follows:
- It would help if you stayed away from raw veggies, dry crackers, and nuts, all of which are rough and peppery.
- Do not consume anything that is either extremely hot or extremely cold.
- Avoid things like alcohol, tobacco, and smoking if you have a mouth sore.
- Avoid eating sugary foods.
- Ask your doctor or oncology nurse for advice on a suitable mouthwash. Some mouthwashes contain alcohol, which can dry up and irritate oral tissues.
- To avoid your lips from drying out, snack on sugar-free candies or chew gum.
- Add gravies and sauces to moisten the dish and make it more manageable.
Effect of Radiation Therapy on the Breasts
Radiation therapy for breast cancer has the potential to have unwanted consequences in other organs, such as the heart and lungs.
Immediate Side Effects on the Breast
The following are among the potential side effects of breast radiation:
- Changes in skin’s hue, dryness, and sensitivity
- Hurting breasts
- The accumulation of fluid in the breasts (lymphedema)
After a month or two, breast pain, discoloration, and swelling due to lymphedema should subside on their own after radiation treatment is completed. If fluid retention remains a concern, consult your oncology team for recommendations.
Long-Term Side Effects on the Breast
Your pores may look more prominent, and your skin may be noticeably darker. Treatment can alter the skin’s sensitivity and texture, making it feel thicker and firmer. The size of a woman’s breasts can fluctuate for various reasons, including fluid retention and scar tissue formation. Some patients report that they still feel the effects of this long after treatment has ended.
Possible Effects on Sexual Behavior
Radiation therapy to the pelvis and sex organs might affect a person’s sexual desire and performance.
Sensuality can be unpleasant for some ladies. Irritation, blistering, and stiffness of the vaginal area may also occur during treatment. You should be able to engage in sexual activity a few weeks after your treatment has ended, but before you do, talk to your doctor.
Radiation therapy to the pelvis can cause sexual dysfunction, so doctors may advise some patients to abstain from sexual activity while undergoing treatment.
Radiation exposure has been linked to negative effects on a man’s erection-producing nerves. When erectile dysfunction does arise, it often develops slowly over a period of months or even years. If this is something that is bothering you, discuss treatment options with your doctor.
The Possible Effects on Fertility
Radiation therapy to the pelvic region has been linked to the cessation of menstruation and other menopausal symptoms in some women. Tell your oncologist about these problems and seek advice on getting some relief from the cancer’s consequences. After radiation therapy is finished, some women’s periods return, while others do not.
The number of sperm and their capacity to function can both be decreased in males by receiving radiation therapy to a region that includes the testicles. Have a conversation with your cancer care team before beginning treatment if you want to start a family and are worried about losing your fertility. A possible solution is sperm banking.
Complications With the Urinary Bladder
Radiation therapy may also lead to problems with urinating, such as:
- Sensations of pain or heat
- Problems urinating
- Urine containing blood
- A constant need to go to the bathroom
Radiation cystitis, in which the bladder lining is damaged by radiation, can be a chronic condition that results in pain or blood in the urine.
Continence Issues in the Urinary Tract
Radiation therapy for prostate and bladder malignancies can cause incontinence, leakage, and dribbling in the urine. Incontinence comes in varying degrees and can manifest in a number of ways, but it is always treatable.
All American Hospice Is Here to Help
Although most side effects of radiation treatments are short-term, patients may experience great discomfort that can impede their recovery. Having the best care to help a patient through the side effects of their treatment is crucial. All American Hospice is the leading provider of hospice care services for patients with all diseases, including cancer.
If you want the best treatment for you or your loved one, call for a free consultation from All American Hospice today. Upon request or inquiry, competent physicians and hospice nurses will assess the patient’s condition and develop a treatment plan tailored to the individual’s wishes. This way, medical professionals and caregivers can closely monitor the patient’s side effects and other symptoms that need prompt medical attention.
Our top priority is the safety of our patients and their loved ones, and we will not let anyone face a medical emergency alone.
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