Managing Effects of Radiation Therapy

How to Cope With the Side Effects of Radiation Treatment

peeling skin from radiation therapy
How you can deal with the side effects of radiation therapy?. istockphoto.com

Side effects of radiation therapy, such as skin irritation and fatigue, are common during treatment. Having an awareness of simple tips to manage these symptoms ahead of time can often lessen the discomfort.

Skin Irritation

Within the first few weeks of radiation therapy, you may notice your skin becoming red and irritated. Your physician may prescribe a cream to ease the discomfort.Taking care to protect your skin from other sources of irritation can help as well.

A few tips include:

  • Use plain water or gentle soap to cleanse the area where radiation is applied. Avoid scrubbing your skin, and pat yourself lightly to dry off after bathing; be careful not to wash off the tattoos that were applied to guide your treatments.
  • Try not to scratch your skin.
  • Wear loose clothing that does not rub. Cotton materials are preferable to rougher materials, such as wool.
  • For women, bras can be irritating, substituting a T-shirt or camisole may be more comfortable.
  • Use gentle detergents to wash your clothes, and avoid applying starch when ironing.
  • Practice caution in the sun. Your skin may burn more easily, and sunburn can amplify the redness and irritation from radiation therapy. Sunscreens, though, can be irritating, so covering up with an umbrella and avoiding midday sun is a better option.
  • Avoid any lotions, creams or powders, unless they are recommended by your radiation oncologist. Many of these skin products contain chemicals that can further irritate your skin.
  • Recently, one study found that applying aloe vera prior to radiation treatments reduced the degree of skin irritation. But as noted above, it's important to talk with your radiation oncologist about anything you apply to your skin before and during treatments.
  • Avoid using band-aids or tape on your skin.
  • Avoid exposing the area to extreme cold or heat; do not use ice packs or heating pads.

Fatigue

Fatigue is very common during radiation treatment and may worsen with time. Having an awareness of this and giving yourself permission to rest is the first step in dealing with the fatigue of radiation therapy and lung cancer in general. Let your loved ones know what they can do to support you during this time. A few principles that may help as well include:

  • Rest when you are tired.
  • Pace yourself throughout the day.
  • Eat healthful, well-balanced meals.
  • Accept help from others.
  • Exercise daily, even a few minutes of light exercise, such as walking, may help.
  • Try to get plenty of sleep at night, and nap during the day, if needed.
  • Check out these tips for coping with cancer fatigue.

Difficulty Swallowing

During radiation therapy for lung cancer, your esophagus (the tube that runs from your mouth to your stomach) can become inflamed. Doctors term this "radiation esophagitis." Symptoms can include heartburn, a sensation of something being stuck in your throat or difficulty swallowing.

Eating practices that may lessen these symptoms include:

  • Drinking liquids before meals.
  • Eating slowly.
  • Cutting food into small pieces.
  • Eating smaller meals more frequently.
  • Avoiding alcohol, acidic foods, dry foods and foods that are either very hot or very cold.
  • Choosing smooth-textured foods, such as yogurt.
  • Placing fruit in smoothies rather than eating them whole.
  • Remaining seated upright for 15 minutes after meals.

Cough

Radiation therapy lowers the level of surfactant in your lungs. Sometimes steroids are used to treat this. Things you can do at home to ease your symptoms include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Sleeping with an extra pillow.
  • Using a humidifier, but first, discuss this with your oncologist.
  • Staying inside in very cold weather, and covering your mouth with a scarf when you must go outside.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Preventing and Managing Side Effects of Radiation Therapy. Updated 04/29/15. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy

Haddad, P. et al. Aloe vera for prevention of radiation-induced dermatitis: a self-controlled clinical trial. Current Oncology. 2013. 20(4):e345-8.

National Cancer Institute. Radiation Therapy. Updated 04/29/15. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy

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