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Possible Side Effects

Despite the great efforts that are made to protect normal tissue during the administration of radiation treatment, some contact is unavoidable and side effects often occur. Some side effects are general while others affect only the area being treated. Knowing these side effects, cancer patients will find themselves better prepared and may find it easier to cope with them.

Most cancer patients receiving radiation therapy report feeling "tired" during the radiation treatment. The experience of fatigue may not be severe enough to interrupt their daily activities, but it usually increases gradually during the course of radiation treatment. It may take weeks or even months to vanish after completion of the radiation treatment. Patients are advised to rest as much as possible during radiation treatment.

Another common side effect during radiation treatment is nausea, and possibly vomiting. This kind of reaction to radiation therapy is more likely when large areas are being treated or when the treatment covers the upper part of the abdomen. Any nausea caused by the treatment can usually be relieved by taking a mild anti-nausea tablet. Many cancer patients lose their appetite while suffering from nausea. As with all treatment for cancer, patients are encouraged to keep up a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids.

Occasionally, mild depression can develop in some cancer patients as a result of radiation therapy. Under such circumstances, support groups or professional advice can be of great help.

In addition to the general side effects mentioned above, some symptoms are responses of the organ or structure receiving radiation treatment. For example, hair loss can be caused by radiation therapy given to the head. Reactions such as swallowing difficulty and shortness of breath can be caused by the radiation treatment applied to the chest area.

Side effects that occur with any one type of radiation treatment may be different from person to person. Cancer patients who have identical courses of treatment may have different side effects and the severity of their side effects may also vary. Some people may go through their entire course of treatment with almost no side effects. Due to the improvement of modern day radiation therapy machines, side effects brought on by radiation treatment have become much less severe.

The radiation oncologist is the best person to advise the patient if side effects occur. Patients should talk with their doctor about any symptoms they are experiencing. The doctor can give the patient information, or prescribe medicines, that can help relieve some of the side effects caused by the radiation therapy.

Although there is increasing concern about the dangers of radiation and the possible side effects of the treatment, with continued improvement of the technology and the experience of doctors in properly using the machines, the risks of radiation treatment are becoming much smaller and are greatly outweighed by the benefits.