Long term side effects of radiotherapy

Most side effects gradually go away in the weeks or months after treatment. But some side effects can continue. Or you might notice some that begin months or years later.

 There are things you can do to deal with any effects that you have. 

Tiredness and weakness

Tiredness after radiotherapy might carry on for some months. You might also feel weak and lack energy. Various things can help you to reduce tiredness and cope with it, for example exercise.

Some research has shown that taking gentle exercise can give you more energy. It is important to balance exercise with resting.

Narrowing of the food pipe

Rarely, your food pipe might become narrower and less stretchy over some months or years. This is called an oesophageal stricture. It can make it difficult for you to swallow.

If you develop a stricture, your doctor can stretch the food pipe slightly. They call this oesophageal dilatation. Stretching the food pipe opens it up again so that you can swallow food and drink more easily.

You have medicine to make you sleepy (sedation). Your doctor puts a tube called an endoscope down your throat. It has an area on it called a balloon. Your doctor expands the balloon to widen the food pipe. They repeat this a few times until the narrowing has gone. 

You might need to have this repeated if the narrowing happens again.

Skin changes

The treatment area might look permanently tanned after your treatment has finished. This is not harmful.

Later, you might appear to have very tiny broken veins in the skin called telangiectasia.

Breathing problems

A cough and breathlessness happen in some people who have radiotherapy to the chest area but this is not common. The problems are due to changes in the lung tissue called chronic radiation pneumonitis. They might start many months or a few years after treatment.

Let your doctor know if you notice any changes in your breathing or if you cough up a lot of mucus.

You might have regular tests to check how well your lungs work. Treatment with steroids or other medicines can help you to breathe more easily.

Last reviewed: 
17 Oct 2019
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