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What to Expect From Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy treats cancer by using high energy to kill tumor cells. The goal is to kill or damage cancer cells without hurting healthy cells.

Different people have different side effects with radiation. You may have little or only mild side effects from your treatment; someone else may have many or very severe side effects. Unfortunately, it's impossible to predict who will have what side effects. In addition, the specific side effects you may have depend on the type of radiation being used, the dose of radiation, the area of the body that's being targeted, and the state of your health.

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Radiation therapy is led by a radiation oncologist. That's a doctor who specializes in radiation medicine. If you are being treated with radiation, it's important to talk with the doctor about possible side effects and ways to cope with them if they occur. Keeping your health team informed about what you experience during treatment makes it easier to manage the side effects. Here is information you can use to help you have those discussions.

How Soon Might Someone Have Side Effects From Radiation Therapy?

There are actually two kinds of side effects from radiation therapy -- early and late. Early side effects, such as nausea or fatigue, are usually temporary. They develop during or right after treatment and last for several weeks after treatment ends, but then improve. Late side effects, such as lung or heart problems, may take years to develop and are often permanent when they do.

The most common early side effects from radiation therapy are fatigue and skin problems. Other early side effects such as hair loss and nausea are typically specific to the site being treated.

What Can I Do About Fatigue That Results From Radiation Therapy?

The fatigue you feel from having cancer and receiving radiation therapy can be overwhelming and keep you from doing the things you normally do, such as going to work or spending time with family and friends. It's also unpredictable and can seem different from day to day, which makes it hard to plan around it. It can even interfere with how well you're able to follow your cancer treatment plan.

Sometimes, doctors can discover other causes for the fatigue. When they do, the cause can be treated. There are things you can do to make fatigue less disabling:

  • Take care of your health. The level of fatigue you feel is often related to the condition of your health at the time of treatment. Review with your doctor how well you are following your treatment plan not just for cancer but for other health conditions you may have. Be sure you're taking your medications the way you're supposed to. Get plenty of rest, increase your level of physical activity, and continue to eat a nutritious diet.
  • Work with a counselor or take a class offered at your cancer treatment center to learn ways to conserve energy, reduce stress, and use distraction to not focus on the fatigue.
  • Prioritize your regular activities so you can do the ones that are most important to you first when you feel less fatigued.
  • Maintain a balance between rest and activities. Too much bed rest can make you more fatigued. But don't over-schedule your activities without allowing time to rest.
  • Talk with your family and friends and ask for their help. If fatigue is interfering with your job, discuss your situation with your employer and ask about taking some time off from work or making adjustments in your schedule.

Keep in mind that the fatigue related to radiation therapy will most likely be temporary and will pass several weeks after your radiation treatment ends.

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