Side effects of radiotherapy for penile cancer
Read about the side effects of radiotherapy for cancer of the penis. You can find out about
Side effects of radiotherapy for penile cancer
Short term side effects from radiotherapy usually begin during your treatment course. They usually gets better 1 to 3 weeks after the end of treatment. The possible side effects are tiredness, sore skin and swelling in the treatment area.
Radiotherapy can cause long term side effects in some people. They come on between a few months and a couple of years after your treatment. The possible long term side effects are
- Difficulty in passing urine – radiotherapy can make the urethra narrower and make passing urine difficult. Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any problems passing urine. You might need surgery to widen the urethra
- Reduced blood supply – radiotherapy can sometimes affect the blood flow to the treated area. Tell your doctor if you see any changes in the colour of your skin where you had treatment
- Difficulty in getting an erection – most men are able to have sex after they've had radiotherapy. Getting an erection might be more difficult if you have thickening of the skin on the penis or problems with blood flow to the penis
- Swelling of your legs and abdomen – some men get swelling called lymphoedema in one or both legs after radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the groin and pelvis. Sometimes swelling can also be in the lower part of the tummy (abdomen) and genitals. See a doctor as soon as possible if you see any redness, pain or swelling in your leg. These can be signs of inflammation (cellulitis). This can make you very unwell and you might need antibiotics. Lymphoedema is easier to manage the earlier it is treated.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating penile cancer section.
Short term side effects from radiotherapy usually begin during your treatment course. They usually get better 1 to 3 weeks after the end of treatment. The possible side effects are tiredness, sore skin and swelling of the penis.
You might feel more tired as your treatment goes on. This is common with radiotherapy. It can be from travelling back and forth to hospital or because of the treatment itself.
Rest when you feel you need to. Daily, mild exercise can be helpful.
Radiotherapy can make your skin sore because the skin round the penis is sensitive. This usually happens after 3 to 4 weeks of treatment.
Tell your nurse, doctor or radiographer if your skin starts to break down. Also tell them if you have any discharge or an ulcer. If this happens, your skin can get infected.
Rubbing can make the soreness worse. Wash the area only with plain water and simple soaps, such as baby soap. Pat the skin dry with a soft towel and don’t rub it. Avoid perfumed or medicated soaps and creams. Before you use any creams or products, check with your doctor, radiotherapy nurse, or radiographer.
The radiotherapy nurse can give you advice if you're worried. The soreness gets better after your treatment is over.
Your penis might become swollen and inflamed. This swelling can cause pain. Tell your doctor, nurse or radiographer if you have pain so that they can give you painkillers. The swelling goes down when you finish your treatment.
Radiotherapy can cause short and long term side effects in some people. Your doctor tries to make sure you have as few side effects as possible. But some people are more sensitive than others to radiation.
Long term side effects are more likely with higher doses of radiation. You are unlikely to have these with a short course of radiotherapy to help with your symptoms. Only some people treated have long term effects. The effects start between a few months and a couple of years after your course of treatment.
Radiotherapy to the penis may cause the following
- difficulty passing urine
- a reduced blood supply to the penis
- difficulty getting an erection
- swelling in your legs or abdomen
Radiotherapy to the penis can make the urethra narrower. This can make passing urine difficult and sometimes impossible. Doctors call this a stricture. It happens if the tissue inside the penis becomes thicker (fibrosis). Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any difficulty in passing urine. You might need to have your urethra stretched (dilated). Or you may have surgery to widen the urethra.
Radiotherapy can sometimes affect the blood flow to the treated area. This can cause problems in keeping the tissue healthy. The tissue may become starved of oxygen and nutrients. If you notice any changes in the colour of your skin where you had treatment, tell your doctor straight away.
Most men are able to have sex after they've had radiotherapy. Getting an erection may be more difficult if you have
- thickening of the skin on the penis
- problems with blood flow to the penis.
Tell your doctor if you have any problems.
Some men get swelling in one or both legs after radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the groin and pelvis. Sometimes swelling can also be in the lower part of the tummy (abdomen) and genitals. This swelling is called lymphoedema (lim-fo-dee-ma). There is more chance of swelling if you've had both surgery and radiotherapy to the area.
The risk of getting swelling (lymphoedema) lasts for life after treatment to your lymph nodes. It can come on years after your treatment.
You can help to lower your risk of swelling by not getting any skin infections. Infections trigger swelling in the area and that can cause more swelling in the leg.
Tips to lower the risk of infection
- Keep your skin healthy by regularly using a perfume free moisturiser
- Protect your feet and legs from scratches and cuts – don’t walk barefoot and make sure you wear long trousers outside
- Wear insect repellant so that you won’t get bitten
- Apply antiseptic to cuts, scratches and bites and cover them with a dressing
- Avoid sunburn
- Take care when cutting toenails – don’t cut or tear the cuticles
If you have an infection
If you see any redness, pain or swelling in your leg, see a doctor as soon as possible. If it happens over a weekend, go to your local Accident and Emergency department.
Some people might feel as though they are coming down with flu or have a high temperature. These can be signs of an acute inflammatory episode (AIE) which is also called cellulitis. This type of infection can cause damage to the lymphatic vessels. You can become very unwell with cellulitis and might need antibiotics.
The British Lymphology Society (BLS) has a consensus document that gives advice to doctors about antibiotics for people with lymphoedema. You can take this with you to your doctor.
Pain and heaviness
Lymphoedema can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Swelling that causes pressure on nerves can cause pain. If your leg is heavy, it can cause problems with walking and your posture. This can cause pain in your joints or other parts of the body.
Lymphoedema is easier to manage as soon as any signs of swelling appear. If you see any swelling in your feet, legs, tummy or genitals speak to your GP or doctor at the hospital. They can refer you to a lymphoedema specialist who can help you manage the lymphoedema, as well as give you advice and emotional support.
For many people having lymphoedema can be a difficult side effect to cope with. You might feel upset or very sad when you get swelling. These feelings are natural. Talking to a lymphoedema therapist can help you to cope with the changes that you have.
The British Lymphology Society (BLS) has a register of UK lymphoedema practitioners.
You can also contact the Lymphoedema Support Network (LSN).
Managing your swelling
A lymphoedema specialist manages your swelling with a combination of
- Skin care
- Compression garments
- Simple lymphatic drainage (SLD)
- Some people may need a course of intensive therapy with special bandages
- Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) might help for swelling of your penis, tummy and groin. This is a specialised type of massage. MLD UK is a website with registered MLD practitioners in the UK.
For general information and support
Contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040 (Open 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday).
Share experiences on our online forum – Cancer Chat.
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team