Radiation Therapy: Managing Short-Term Side Effects

Woman having glass of water at kitchen sink.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays or particles to kill cancer cells. Some normal cells can also be affected. This causes side effects such as dry skin, tiredness (fatigue), or changes in your appetite. Most side effects go away when your radiation therapy is over.

Having side effects of radiation therapy does not mean that your cancer is getting worse or that therapy isn’t working.

Caring for your skin

Skin problems may happen where your body gets radiation. Your skin may become dry, itchy, red, and peeling. It may darken in that spot, like a tan. To care for your skin:

  • Don’t scrub on the treatment area. Clean that area of the skin every day. Use warm water and mild soap, or as your healthcare provider advises. Pat the skin afterward or let it air dry.

  • Ask your therapy team what lotion to use and when to use it.

  • Keep the treated area out of the sun. Ask your team about using a sunscreen.

  • Don't remove ink marks unless your radiation therapist says you can. Don’t scrub the marks when you wash. Let water run over them and pat them dry.

  • Protect your skin from heat or cold. Avoid hot tubs, saunas, hot pads, and ice packs.

  • Wear soft, loose clothing to avoid rubbing skin.

Fighting tiredness

The cancer itself or the radiation therapy may cause you to feel tired. Your body is working hard to heal and repair itself. To feel better:

  • Try light exercise each day. Take short walks.

  • Plan tasks for the times when you tend to have the most energy. Ask for help when you need it.

  • Relax before you go to bed to sleep better. Try reading or listening to soothing music.

  • Be sure to let your cancer care team know if you continue to have fatigue that is not getting better. They may be able to offer ways to help. 

Coping with appetite changes

Tell your therapy team if you find it hard to eat or have no appetite. You may need to see a nutritionist. This is a healthcare provider with special training in meal planning. To keep your strength up, you need to eat well and maintain your weight. Think of healthy eating as part of your treatment. Try these tips:

  • Eat slowly.

  • Eat small meals several times a day.

  • Eat more food when you’re feeling better, even if it is not mealtime.

  • Ask others to keep you company when you eat.

  • Stock up on easy-to-prepare foods.

  • Eat foods high in protein and calories.

  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids.

  • Ask your healthcare provider before taking any vitamins.

Site-specific side effects

These side effects include the following: 

  • You may lose hair in the area being treated. The hair often grows back after treatment.

  • Your mouth or throat can become dry or sore if your head or neck is being treated. Sip cool water to help ease discomfort.

  • Nausea and bowel changes can happen with radiation to the pelvic region. Tell your healthcare provider if you have nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. You may need to take medicine or follow a special diet.

Talk with your healthcare team

Radiation therapy can also have other side effects, including some that might not show up until years later. Be sure to talk with your healthcare team about what to expect with the type of radiation therapy you are getting, including when you should call them with concerns.