Side effects usually occur toward the end of your course of
radiotherapy and during the first couple of weeks after treatment
has finished. How troublesome side effects are depends on how much
radiotherapy is given.
Your doctor will tell you about the side effects that you might
expect with your radiotherapy treatment and can prescribe
medications to help you.
Radiotherapy makes you tired, so try to get as much rest as you
can, especially if you have to travel to the treatment centre. You
may feel slightly sick, but this can usually be effectively
treated using anti-sickness drugs.
Soreness of the skin
The skin in the treatment area may become red and sore, like
sunburn. Sometimes, the skin may peel or crack. At the beginning
of your radiotherapy, advice will be given on how to look after
the skin in the area being treated, including creams or lotions to
help with soreness.
Hair loss only occurs where the radiotherapy beam enters and
leaves the body. Hair may grow back a few weeks after treatment
finishes, but hair loss may sometimes be permanent in the affected
area. For example, men being treated for cancer of the larynx will
lose their beard hair in the throat area.
This includes conjunctivitis and dry eyes for which treatment
Radiotherapy may make the lining of the mouth, throat or nose
sore and inflamed. In the throat, this may make it difficult to
swallow. Your doctor can prescribe painkillers and mouthwashes to
ease this and you will be given advice on foods that are easy to
swallow. If your throat becomes too sore to eat or drink easily,
you may be given a liquid diet through a thin tube called a
nasogastric tube that is passed up your nose and down into your
Dry mouth or throat
If radiotherapy is being given to the upper part of your neck,
this may affect the salivary glands so that they produce less, or
no, saliva, which can cause a dry mouth. The dryness can be
relieved by using aids such as KY jelly or olive oil, artificial
saliva, medicated pastilles or some medicines. A dietician can
advise you on moist foods that are easy to eat. Usually, the
salivary glands will recover, but for some people the reduction in
saliva is permanent.
Your throat may also feel dry, and it may feel as though there
is sticky mucus in your throat. Both feelings may continue after
the end of treatment but should eventually disappear.
If you do have a dry mouth, it is important to see a dentist
regularly as tooth decay and gum disease are more likely when your
mouth is dry. If it is necessary to have a tooth removed after
radiotherapy to the mouth area, this should be done by a hospital
specialist, not your usual dentist.
Loss of voice
In cancer of the larynx, your voice may already be hoarse
before you start treatment, and is likely to become more hoarse
(or even to disappear) during radiotherapy. Your voice will
gradually improve and get stronger over the following weeks and
months. You may be given voice exercises by a speech therapist to
help speed up the recovery.
Loss of appetite, taste and smell
Some people lose their appetite during and after radiotherapy.
Your doctor or nurse can prescribe nutritious, high-calorie drinks
to supplement or replace your meals until your appetite returns.
Smell and taste may become dull or change during treatment and
for a few months afterwards. Your taste and smell should return to
normal after treatment, but may not return in everyone. Your
speech therapist will be able to teach you helpful techniques.