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Side Effects

Most of the side effects of radiation therapy are limited to the area being treated. Short-term side eff ects are related to injury to normal rapidly dividing cells. They are usually temporary, mild and treatable. These symptoms typically begin by the second or third week of treatment. They may last for a few weeks after the final radiation treatment and typically go away one month after completing radiation therapy. For example, a breast cancer patient may notice skin irritation on the chest, like a mild to moderate sunburn, while a patient with cancer in the mouth may have soreness when swallowing. 

The short-term side effect most often reported by patients receiving radiation therapy is fatigue. The fatigue experienced is usually mild or moderate and differs for each patient. Fatigue may also be related to the area being treated and other therapies, such as chemotherapy, that the patient may be receiving. Patients may be able to continue all or a portion of their normal daily activities. However, receiving treatment for cancer often requires considerable mental and physical effort. Whenever possible, try to take time during your treatment to rest and relax.  If you experience discomfort or other symptoms during or after treatment, be sure to tell your radiation oncology team. They may be able to recommend strategies, prescribe medication or suggest changes to your diet to help. 

Long-term side effects of radiation therapy may occur in any normal tissues in the irradiated area. With careful radiation therapy planning using improved technologies, serious long-term side eff ects are uncommon. The risks of long-term side eff ects depend on the area receiving radiation as well as the radiation dose being given. It is best to discuss the specific risks of long-term side effects with your radiation oncologist.

Some patients are concerned that radiation therapy will cause another cancer in the long-term. In fact, the risk of developing a second tumor because of radiation therapy is extremely low. For many people, the benefits of radiation therapy outweigh any small risk that the treatment could cause a later cancer or other serious health conditions. However, you should discuss the risks and benefits of all of your treatments with your treatment team. If you smoke, the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of a second cancer is to quit smoking.


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