Doctors may choose to treat cancer with radiation for many reasons.. Radiation therapy works to improve the quality of life for someone with cancer by reducing inflammation around the area of the body where the cancer resides, as well as by stopping the growth of cancer cells. Radiation therapy doesn’t always cure cancer, but it can help slow its progression. However, this type of therapy that attacks the cells of our body has a series of unwanted consequences. In this article we expose the main side effects of radiotherapy.
What is radiotherapy?
Cancer is a disease in which some cells in the body grow uncontrollably. This cell growth can form tumors, which are simply lumps made of tissue (association of cells). Tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (not cancerous). In the case of cancerous tumors, they have the ability to spread and invade other tissues, first the nearby ones, then they can move to distant parts of the body and form new tumors, this process is known as metastasis.
To treat cancer it is necessary to end cell proliferation. More than half of people diagnosed with cancer receive radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy waves to treat an area of the body, usually where the tumor is located or where surgery has been performed, in this case it serves to kill any remaining cancer cells in the area.
High-energy waves attack cancer cells, causing irreversible damage or death.. If the DNA of cancer cells is damaged, they cannot grow or make more cancer cells. Compared to chemotherapy, which affects cells throughout the body, radiation only affects the specific areas of the body where it is used. However, sometimes the waves can damage surrounding non-cancerous cells.
What are the side effects of radiation therapy?
It is important to keep in mind in cancer treatment, as in other types of treatment, that everyone reacts differently. Some people experience many side effects from undergoing anticancer treatment, while others hardly notice them.. In addition, in the case of radiation therapy, the location and severity of the cancer, the general health status of the patient, as well as the pre-existence of any pathological conditions prior to the cancer diagnosis, affect the side effects that they experience during treatment.
While some patients can continue to work or enjoy leisure activities while receiving radiation treatment, others need to take it easy and limit their activities. What each patient can do, and the degree to which their daily life is disrupted during treatment, will depend on how the radiation affects them and cannot be known in advance.
Some of the common side effects include nausea, fatigue, hair loss, and skin inflammation. However, the duration and dose of radiation strongly influence the number, severity and type of side effects of the treatment. Most side effects only last a few months after completing treatment, while some may continue for a longer period of time. This happens because cells affected by radiation take longer to recover.
In cancer there are different types of treatment or better said treatment plans. If the side effects are problematic and affect the patient’s well-being or regular daily activities, the oncologist may consider a change of course, for example, modifying the time between sessions. In some cases, if the patient has severe side effects, the treatment plan can be changed completely. Finally, it is important to note that the care team needs to know when side effects are experienced so that they can be treated. Now let’s see, which side effects occur most often during radiation therapy:
Radiation therapy kills healthy cells along with cancer cells, making the person physically, mentally and emotionally tired., the cells of our body also help regulate our emotions. Most people start to feel fatigued within a few weeks of having radiation therapy. However, during radiation treatment, fatigue feels differently than normal daily fatigue. Often it will not get better with extra rest and can go on for long periods of time. This can interfere with daily activities, but usually goes away once treatment ends.
Fatigue management is an important aspect of care, but it is not easy. There is no medical test that can indicate a person’s level of fatigue, the patient is the only one who knows how tired he is. Typically, a scale from 0 to 10 is used, where 0 means no fatigue and 10 means a level of fatigue well above what we can experience in normal health. These levels can be classified as no fatigue, mild fatigue, moderate fatigue, or severe fatigue.
2. Skin problems
Skin problems are common with radiation therapy, and can range from mild discomfort to serious problems in some people. The skin in the radiation area can become red, swollen, and even blister or bleed.
Sometimes during treatment, the skin develops scaly patches, itches, or begins to peel. This is called radiation dermatitis and can occur a few weeks after radiation therapy. It is important to watch for changes in the skin, to prevent further irritation and prevent the skin from becoming infected. There are also a series of guidelines that can help care for the skin during radiation therapy, such as:
- Wear clothing that is not tight, textured, or rigid over the radiation area, rather wear loose-fitting clothing that is soft to the touch.
- Use special products for sensitive skin in case you need to cover the skin or treat it.
- It is best to avoid hot or very cold water on the treated area, also only lukewarm water should be used to wash the area after treatment.
- The skin after radiotherapy is very sensitive to UV rays, so it is essential to protect yourself from the sun by covering the affected area, in addition to using sunscreen regularly with a protection factor equal to 30 or higher, even after the treatment is finished. .
- Wash the area with lukewarm water, a mild soap, and no rubbing. Let the water run over the treated skin and do not rub with soap so that the ink marks from the radiation therapy do not disappear until the treatment is finished.
- Do not use perfumes, deodorants, body oils, lotions, hair removal products, or even home remedies, during the course of treatment and for some time afterwards. Many of these products can irritate the skin, and some can even affect the level of radiation that enters the body.
After the treatment is finished, most of the time the skin problems will gradually disappear. Although, in some cases, the treated skin may be more sensitive and even darker than before.
3. Hair loss
When you lose hair, hair follicles decrease in number and become smaller. Some areas of the body are more sensitive to radiation therapy, which causes hair loss in the treated area. Radiation to the head will generally cause hair loss, including eyelashes and eyebrows, while radiation to other parts of the body, for example the hip, will not affect hair loss anywhere on the body .
After treatment, hair grows back for most people. But often this one has a different look and strength than it did before, usually it’s thinner. If the treatment affects hair loss on the head, the skin of the scalp is exposed. This area is very sensitive, so it is recommended to wear a hat or scarf to protect it from the sun.
4. Low blood cell count
Changes in the blood count can occur as a side effect of radiation therapy. This may mean that there is a deficiency of immune cells. -which help the body fight infections and prevent bleeding-. If a patient’s blood tests show a low blood cell count, treatment may be stopped for a few days to bring it back to normal. This also frequently occurs during chemotherapy treatment.
Radiation therapy attacks cells in our bodies, causing an inflammatory response. Sometimes this response can involve pain. There are different medications to control the pain that occurs during radiation therapy.
6. Area-specific side effects
Finally, some side effects will depend on the part of the body where the radiation therapy is applied, depending on the area. For example, in the brain, one of the areas where most radiotherapy treatment is applied, these effects may include:
- nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Hearing loss
- Brain fog and forgetfulness