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What Should I do After Radiation Therapy?

By Jacquelyn Gilchrist
Updated May 17, 2024
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Radiation therapy, which is used to treat cancer, can damage a person's healthy cells, as well as the cancerous ones. After radiation therapy, focus on taking care of yourself and managing your side effects, such as fatigue, hair loss, and skin changes. Not everyone will experience the same side effects, so keep a record of what you observe and discuss ways of addressing them with your doctor. For example, you may need to take medications to control nausea and vomiting, or you may need to change your schedule to manage fatigue. Protect your mouth from sores by following a gentle hygienic routine and seeing your dentist regularly.

Nausea and vomiting are common after radiation therapy, particularly when the radiation targets the stomach or brain. It is likely to worsen just after treatment and it can last for hours. Patients may need to experiment to find what works best for them to prevent nausea. For example, some may feel better if they eat prior to the treatment, while others may need to keep the stomach empty for a little while.

Consuming bland foods, such as toast, after radiation therapy may help keep the stomach settled. Patients may benefit from consuming several smaller meals and snacks daily instead of three large meals. Those who suffer from severe vomiting should ask their doctors about anti-nausea medications to take before the radiation treatment. Others may prefer to try acupuncture to combat nausea.

After radiation therapy, patients are likely to experience fatigue. Unlike nausea, fatigue can persist for weeks or even a year following the last treatment. Other patients may recover somewhat, but will still feel rundown on a permanent basis. Getting plenty of sleep and resting frequently or napping during the day can help.

While resting is important, it is also recommended that patients engage in gentle exercise to help fight fatigue, such as a slow walk or a short yoga session. Patients should avoid trying to fit too much into their schedule. Those who have jobs may need to switch to a part-time job or telecommute instead. A doctor may also prescribe a medication, called a psychostimulant, that can help patients cope with fatigue.

Skin changes are also common after radiation therapy. Patients may notice swelling, redness, and peeling skin around the area that the treatment targeted. Sores or ulcers may develop, particularly in skin folds. This condition will often subside a few weeks following the last treatment; however, some changes may be permanent.

Most likely, you will need to be vigilant with sunscreen and protective clothing for the rest of your life to avoid sunburn. Patients are more susceptible to developing skin cancer in the treatment areas. The doctor can recommend mild cleansers and lotions that are gentle on the skin. Some topical drugs may be helpful for reducing itching and swelling.

Mouth sores may also occur after radiation therapy that targets the neck or head. Patients should see their dentists regularly, before and after the treatments. Sipping water frequently throughout the day can relieve dry mouth. Consume soft, moist foods that do not abrade the mouth. Check your mouth every day for the development of sores and brush the teeth very gently with a fluoride toothpaste.

Cancer and its treatments can take an emotional toll as well as a physical one. The support of family and friends is particularly important, both during and after radiation therapy. Even after the treatments are over, patients can find help with support groups or counselors.

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