Radiation Treatment Side Effects
What are the side effects of Radiation Treatment?
Since radiation therapy also causes damage to normal cells, it can be expected that there will be side effects from the treatment.
Side effects may be classified into different categories.
Acute side effects are minor side effects that appear soon after treatment but may not last very long.
Late side effects can appear up to several months or years after treatment and are usually the result of damaged tissues or blood cells.
Cumulative side effects can appear from a combination of factors over time.
Some types of acute Radiation Treatment side effects include:
- Epithelial surface damage: Epithelium is a form of tissue that lines many cavities and structures throughout the body.
Areas affected may include the skin, oral mucosa, and ureter.
- Soft Tissue Swelling: Soft tissues may become swollen during and after radiation treatments.
Swelling may be reduced through the administration of steroids.
Surgery prior to treatment for potentially problematic areas may also be an option
- Infertility: The gonads, or ovaries and testicles, are particularly sensitive to radiotherapy.
Direct exposure may result in an inability to produce gametes.
Proper planning is necessary to minimize dosages that affect the gonad areas.
- Nausea/Vomiting: Radiation treatments may cause gastrointestinal disorders such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Late Radiation Treatment side effects include:
- Epilation/Alopecia: Hair loss may occur wherever the skin is exposed to radiation fields.
Sometimes the hair loss may be permanent depending on the dosages administered
- Fibrosis: This is a hardening of tissues due to a scarring process from radiation.
The tissue may become less elastic as time passes.
- Lymphedema: Localized tissue swelling and/or fluid retention can often be the result of damaged lymph glands and nodes.
Commonly reported in breast radiation treatments.
- Dryness: Dry mouth and dry eyes can become long-term concerns as the salivary and tear glands have a relatively low radiation tolerance.
Also, sweat glands may be affected as well as vaginal mucosa after pelvic irradiations.
- Heart Disease: Some studies have a high risk of death from heart disease in breast radiotherapy patients
- Cancer: Secondary malignant growths occur in a small number of patients, usually 1 in every 1000.
The secondary cancer cells usually develop any where from 5-30 years after treatment.
The secondary growths usually occur within the area that was previously treated
- Decline in Cognitive Functions: Especially with radiation treatments involving the head, cognitive functions may be affected over time
Cumulative side effects imply that the above mentioned symptoms appear in multiple combinations.
Sometimes short-term effects may disappear and/or reappear, often leaving behind trace effects that later on become problematic.
This is different from simple long-term side effects, in that cumulative side effects may present challenges if future re-irradiation is needed.
What can be done to minimize side effects?
Patients can take several steps to minimize side effects.
The basic idea is to supplement medications with alternative forms of therapy so as to promote optimal health during and after treatments.
Maintaining a proper and nutritious diet can help ease gastrointestinal symptoms.
Any lesions or abrasions on the skin can be treated with basic lotions or herbal poultice applications.
If the patient is able, light exercise such as walking in place or tai chi may be helpful in easing joint discomfort.
Are there any other cancer treatments available with fewer side effects?
Although radiation treatments are a viable option for some patients, there are several alternative treatments that may be considered to have less side effects.
An example of such treatment that is readily available is the Cyberknife cancer treatment procedure.
Cyberknife treatments utilize radiation from linear particle accelerators as in normal radiation therapy, except that they are typically smaller.
A cyberknife treatment uses a robotic arm to direct the radiation in a manner that is much more accurate and precise than standard radiotherapy.