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General side effects of radiotherapy

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This page gives an overview of the general side effects of radiotherapy. There is information about

 

Why radiotherapy causes side effects

Radiotherapy destroys cancer cells in the area of the body it is aimed at. But the treatment also affects some of the normal cells nearby. Radiotherapy affects people in different ways, so it's difficult to predict exactly how you will react. Some people have only mild side effects but for others the side effects are more severe.

 

Finding out about side effects

Before you start your treatment, talk about any likely side effects with the staff in your radiotherapy team. Knowing about the side effects may help you to prepare and to manage any problems. Ask about any possible long term side effects that the treatment may cause.

 

Side effects during treatment

The main side effects of radiotherapy treatment include

Tiredness and weakness

Most people feel tired while they are having radiotherapy, particularly if they are having treatment over several weeks. This is because the body is repairing the damage to healthy cells. Or tiredness can be due to low levels of red blood cells (anaemia). You may also feel weak and as though you don't have the energy to do your normal daily activities. This may last for a few weeks after the treatment ends.

Rest if you need to and try to exercise a little when you can. This may help to reduce the tiredness. 

You can find information about coping with tiredness.

Sore skin

Some people get sore skin in the area being treated. The skin may look reddened or darker than usual. It may also get dry and itchy. The staff in the radiotherapy department can advise you on the best way of coping with this. 

We also have information about preventing and dealing with skin soreness.

Loss of hair in the treatment area

Radiotherapy makes the hair fall out in the treatment area. Hair in other parts of the body is not affected. The hair should begin to grow back again a few weeks after the treatment ends. 

You can find detailed information about coping with hair loss.

 

Other side effects

Other side effects that you may have will depend on the area of the body being treated. Tell your doctor, nurse or radiographer about any side effects. They can help you find ways of reducing the effects and coping with them. They can give you leaflets which describe the side effects. 

We have information about the possible side effects of radiotherapy to specific areas of the body, including

 

Possible long term side effects

For many people the side effects of radiotherapy wear off within a few weeks of the treatment ending and they can go back to a normal life. But for some people radiotherapy can cause long term side effects. The possibility of long term side effects can depend on the type of cancer and its size and position. It may also depend on how close the cancer is to nerves or other important organs or tissues.

It is important to ask your doctor, specialist nurse or radiographer about the possibility of long term side effects. Depending on the position of the cancer the possible long term effects may include 

  • A change in skin colour in the treatment area
  • A dry mouth
  • Breathing problems
  • Loss of ability to become pregnant or father a child (infertility)
  • Low sex drive
  • Erection problems (impotence)
  • Long term soreness and pain
  • Bowel changes
  • Bladder inflammation

We have detailed information about side effects of radiotherapy to specific areas of the body in this section. You can also find information in the radiotherapy section for each type of cancer.

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Updated: 2 May 2014