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Side effects of radiotherapy for advanced cancer

Radiotherapy for advanced cancer aims to make you feel better. So your cancer specialist will try to plan your treatment so you have as few side effects as possible. 

Side effects tend to start a week after the radiotherapy begins. They gradually get worse during the treatment and for a couple of weeks after the treatment ends. But they usually begin to improve after around 2 weeks or so.

These side effects vary from person to person. You may not have all of the effects mentioned. 

The side effects you have also depend on how well you are before the radiotherapy, the dose of radiotherapy and also how long you have it over. Radiotherapy courses that last 1 to 5 days usually have fewer side effects than a course that lasts 2 to 3 weeks.

Side effects can include:

You might feel tired during your treatment. It tends to get worse as the treatment goes on. You might also feel weak and lack energy. Rest when you need to.

Tiredness can carry on for some weeks after the treatment has ended but it usually improves gradually.

Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, such as exercise. Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It's important to balance exercise with resting.

During and after treatment, you might have a feeling of a lump in the throat when you swallow. This can make it difficult to swallow solid foods.

This problem is often at its worst about 10 days to 2 weeks after you finish treatment.

Ask to see a dietitian if you have problems with eating and drinking
Tips for eating and drinking
  • Drink about 3 litres of water a day while having treatment.
  • Eat soft foods.
  • Eat slowly and avoid eating late in the day.
  • Drink plenty during and after meals to soften your food.
  • Eat small amounts often rather than big meals.
  • Try different foods to find out which are easiest to swallow.
  • You can have high calorie drinks to boost your calorie intake if you need them.

You might need to have liquid food through a tube into your nose or stomach if you can’t eat enough. This is called tube feeding.

Your mouth and throat might get sore. It may be painful to swallow drinks or food. You will have mouth washes to keep your mouth healthy.

You can have painkillers to reduce the soreness. Take them half an hour before meals to make eating easier.

Tell your doctor or nurse if your throat is sore.

Feeling or being sick can be severe. It can start a few hours after treatment and last for a few days. Anti sickness injections and tablets can control it. Tell your doctor or nurse if you feel sick. You may need to try different anti sickness medicines to find one that works.

Contact your doctor or nurse straight away if you’ve been sick more than once in a day.

Tips

  • Avoid eating or preparing food when you feel sick.
  • Avoid fried foods, fatty foods or foods with a strong smell.
  • Drink plenty of liquid to stop you from getting dehydrated.
  • Relaxation techniques help control sickness for some people.
  • Ginger can help – try it as crystallised stem ginger, ginger tea or ginger ale.
  • Fizzy drinks help some people when they are feeling sick.

Your mouth might get very dry, which can be uncomfortable. Various things can help.

Tips

  • Try to drink at least 3 pints (one and a half litres) of fluid a day.
  • Choose meals that are moist.
  • Use gravies and sauces to make swallowing easier.
  • Take regular sips of water with your meal to help you chew and swallow your food.
  • Suck small amounts of ice chips to refresh your mouth.
  • Chew sugar free chewing gum.
  • Try eating fresh pineapple.
  • Get your doctor or nurse to give you medicines to stimulate your salivary glands.
  • Ask your doctor about artificial saliva products, such as tablets, mouthwashes, gum, pastilles, and toothpaste.
  • It is very important to have regular check ups with your dentist.

Your skin might go red or darker in the treatment area. You might also get slight redness or darkening on the other side of your body. This is where the radiotherapy beams leave the body. 

The red or darker areas can feel sore. Your radiographers will give you creams to soothe your skin. The soreness usually goes away within 2 to 4 weeks of ending the treatment. But your skin might always be slightly darker in that area.

Tell the radiotherapy staff if you notice any skin changes.

Your hair may fall out in the treatment area.

Side effects if you have chemotherapy with radiotherapy

Chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy can make some side effects worse. Combining these treatments is called chemoradiotherapy.

Last reviewed: 
18 Oct 2019
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