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Here's What You Should Know About Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Medically reviewed by Mae Charisse Antalan, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Red Ricafort · Updated Feb 16, 2023

Here's What You Should Know About Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Radiation therapy is one of the treatments that are being used today to deal with cancers. It may be used as the sole treatment for the cancer patients, or together with other treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. Its side effects varies depending on the case of the patient. Some may experience most of the side effects, while others may experience very few or none at all. Also, its side effects can be resolved after the entire treatment process. And it can also be entirely prevented.

What is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation therapy involves the use of powerful radioactive beams to kill cancer cells. Normally, cells divide and multiply at a regulated rate. But cancer cells multiply at an alarming rate. Radiation therapy uses x-rays to target and destroy their genetic material—DNA, of the affected cells, which are in charge of how the cells grow and multiply. Radiation therapy is supposed to target only the affected cells. However, in practice, the surrounding healthy cells are also being affected. Therapy is planned to reduce chances that healthy cells are destroyed.

Another type of radiation therapy involves taking a radioactive pill or substance. This substance will gather at the point where cancer cells are located. This type of radiotherapy lessens the effect on the healthy parts of the body.

However, this type of treatment is not very effective for cancer types that have already spread to the rest of the body.

When is It Used?

Radiation therapy is commonly used to:

  • Shrink cancer cells at an early stage
  • Prevent the return of cancer cells
  • Manage cancer cells that have returned
  • Help with symptoms caused by an advanced stage of cancer
  • Preparation for Treatment and Radiation Therapy Side Effects

    Before treatment, the healthcare provider will discuss the possible side effects, risks, and the overall process. A planning stage will be scheduled to pinpoint the exact location of the tumor. This normally has two stages:

    • Radiation simulation – During this process, the patient will be asked to lie down so the medical team can pinpoint the location of the tumor with a marker or a small permanent tattoo.
    • Planning scans – The patient will undergo a computerized tomography or CT scan to determine the exact location where the treatment would be needed.

    The healthcare team can then decide how the treatment will proceed depending on the patient’s overall well-being, cancer stage, and treatment objective.

    Treatment Process

    During the therapy, a machine is used to administer the beams to the target location. This machine is called a linear accelerator, and is used to deliver radioactive beams to the tumor’s location from different angles.

    The treatment may continue in a series of sessions. Each session may last a few days each, with intervals of several weeks in between sessions to allow the healthy cells to recuperate.

    Radiation therapy side effects

    Side effects occur depending on location of the cancer, its type, the radiation dose used, and the patient’s overall health.

    Radiation therapy side effects: Early side effects

    The patient may experience short-term treatable side effects. These symptoms usually disappear after treatment. These side effects include the following:

    • Tiredness
    • Sore skin
    • Sore mouth
    • Loss of appetite
    • Hair loss

    The treatment may also affect the patient emotionally. Contacting a support group may help.

    Radiation therapy side effects: Later side effects

    Radiation treatment may have long-term effects on body tissues. These side effects take time to develop. To prevent these, the treatment planning should be done carefully. The patient should have an in-depth discussion with their doctor regarding these possible long-term side effects.

    The following are the possible long-term side effects:

    • In the case of radiation therapy to the brain, long-term affects may include loss of memory, stroke-like symptoms, and poor brain function.
    • Radiation therapy to the breast may result to less skin sensitivity and larger pores. The size of the breast may also change.
    • Radiation therapy to the chest may produce heart complications, such as damage to the arteries and the heart valves.
    • Chest radiation therapy may also cause inflammation of the lungs.
    • Radiation to the pelvis may cause radiation cystitis, urinary incontinence, and fistulas.
    • In women, menstrual periods may stop permanently.
    • In men, radiation therapy may reduce number and quality of sperm cells.

    Key takeaway

    In treating cancer, the radiation therapy procedures and side effects may be intimidating.

    Early side effects include fatigue, sore skin, sore mouth, and hair loss. Long-term side effects may include damage to the tissues and other such complications.

    Planning and consultation with the medical team may help patients feel more confident in their treatment.

    Learn more about Cancer here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mae Charisse Antalan, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Red Ricafort · Updated Feb 16, 2023

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