Caring for yourself during radiation therapy
Having radiation therapy will most likely affect you and your family’s day-to-day life. Caring for yourself during radiation therapy is important. You may have general side effects of radiation therapy along with other effects, depending on what part of your body is being treated. Here are some general tips that may help you feel better during radiation therapy.
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Radiation therapy can make you feel more tired than normal. Try to get enough sleep at night. Being active when you can may help you sleep better. Ask for help when you need it and try to focus on the most important things you need to do. Plan a time to rest during the day. Taking a short nap, reading or listening to music can help you feel more energetic.
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Your body needs nutrients to help repair itself from the effects of radiation therapy. If you are having radiation therapy to certain parts of the body, such as the abdomen or the head and neck, this can affect your ability to eat well. Your healthcare team may suggest changes in your diet to cope with side effects of radiation therapy. Find out more about nutrition for people with cancer.
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Talk to your healthcare team about any side effects you are having. People can experience side effects differently. Many side effects can be relieved by medicines, a change in diet or more physical activity. Sometimes radiation treatments may need to be adjusted if side effects are severe.
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Other medicines – such as creams, ointments, vitamin or mineral supplements, and herbal remedies and other natural health products – may affect how radiation therapy works. They may also cause side effects or make side effects worse. Talk to your doctor about any medicines you are taking.
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The skin can be very sensitive to radiation therapy. Be gentle with your skin and take care of your skin during radiation therapy. Talk to your radiation therapy team about any symptoms or problems you are having. Your radiation therapy team can give you tips on taking care of your skin during radiation therapy.
The following are ways to take care of your skin during radiation therapy:
- Wash your skin gently with warm water and mild soap and rinse well. Do not scrub or rub the area. Pat the skin dry. Do not use a hair drier if you are having radiation therapy to the head.
- Protect treatment areas from rubbing, pressure or irritation by wearing loose, soft clothing next to the skin. Cotton and silk are less irritating on radiated skin than harsh fabrics like wool and denim.
- Ask your radiation therapy team before you use anything on the skin in the treatment area. Powders, creams, perfumes, deodorants, body oils, ointments or lotions can irritate skin or may affect your response to the radiation treatment.
- Check with your radiation therapy team about shaving in the treatment area. Use an electric shaver instead of a razor to prevent cutting the skin. Do not use aftershave or hair removal products on skin in the treatment area.
- Don’t wear a bra when having radiation therapy to the breast area. If this is too uncomfortable, talk to the radiation therapy team about possible options. They may suggest wearing a soft, comfortable bra without underwire.
- Do not put anything hot or cold (such as heating pads or ice packs) on the treatment area.
- Do not squeeze or scratch pimples.
- Do not wash or scrub off any markings used to target radiation therapy until after the last treatment.
- Rinse well after swimming in a pool because chlorine can dry the skin.
- Protect the treated skin area from the sun. Skin in the treatment area will be extra sensitive to sunlight and can burn easily. Cover treated skin with a hat or clothing before going outside. Ask the radiation therapy team about using a sunscreen and when it is OK to start using it.
- Talk to the radiation therapy team if skin in the treatment area gets cut or scraped. They will suggest ways to take care of it and how to bandage cuts if needed, such as by using tape made for sensitive skin and applying tape outside the treatment area.
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Radiation therapy to the head and neck area can increase the chance of developing cavities or tooth decay. It can also increase the risk of infection or bleeding from dental work. If you are having radiation therapy to the head and neck, see a dentist before radiation therapy begins. They will do a full oral health exam and provide any preventive dental work needed. They can also suggest ways to help prevent or manage mouth, teeth and jawbone problems caused by radiation therapy or other treatments.
Expert review and references
Canadian Cancer Society. Radiation Therapy: A Guide for People with Cancer. Toronto, ON: Canadian Cancer Society; 2005.
Radiotherapy. Cancer Research UK. CancerHelp UK. Cancer Research UK; 2009.
Haas ML . Radiation therapy. Varricchio, C., Pierce, M., Hinds, P. S., & Ades, T. B. A Cancer Source Book for Nurses. 8th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2004: 8: pp. 131-147.
Radiotherapy. Macmillan Cancer Support. Macmillan Cancer Support. London, UK: Macmillan Cancer Support; 2009.