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Discharge Instructions for Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses beams of high-energy X-rays or particles to kill cancer cells or slow their growth. Radiation destroys cancer cells slowly, over time. It does this by damaging genes in the cells. Treatment may be needed for days or weeks until the gene damage is bad enough to kill the cancer cells. The damage goes on, so cells keep dying, even after treatment ends.

Radiation can also damage or kill some of the normal cells close to the tumor. Damaged normal cells can repair themselves, often within a few days. Still, this damage to healthy cells can cause side effects. Your treatment team will talk with you about what you might expect. A few of the more common problems linked to radiation are listed here.

Caring for your skin

The skin where your body is being treated with radiation may become sore, red, swollen, and peel. This can be a lot like a bad sunburn. It might start a few weeks into treatment and will slowly heal after treatment ends. Ask your treatment team what you should do to take care of your skin.

They may suggest that you use a mild soap and warm (not hot) water to wash your skin at the treatment area. Pat your skin dry rather than rubbing.

Your team may also suggest products to moisturize your skin and help prevent infection. The goal is to keep your skin soft, so it doesn't crack or break. Be sure you know when and how often to use any skin care products they tell you about.

Here are some other things to know: 

  • Ask before shaving the treated area.

  • Ask your team before using perfume, cologne, makeup, powder, deodorant, corn starch, acne cream, or anything else on your skin.

  • Protect your treated skin from the sun. Ask your treatment team about using a sunscreen. You don’t have to stop going outside. But be sure to take the right precautions. This part of your skin will be more sensitive to the sun for the rest of your life.

  • Don’t remove ink marks unless your radiation therapist says it’s OK. Don’t scrub or use soap on the marks when you wash. Let water run over them and pat them dry.

  • Protect your skin from heat or cold. Don’t use hot tubs, saunas, heating pads, or ice packs.

  • Don't swim in chlorinated water.

  • Don’t wear clothing that's tight or rubs your skin. Try to wear soft, loose fabrics.

Fighting fatigue

Radiation therapy may cause you to feel tired. You may even feel tired after resting. Your body is working hard to heal and repair itself. Fatigue can last for a long time after treatment ends. To feel better, try these things:

  • Do light exercise each day. Take short walks. Being active can help ease fatigue.

  • Try to eat well and drink plenty of fluids. Ask your team for advice on what you should eat and drink during treatment.

  • Plan times to rest. Don't push yourself.

  • Plan tasks for the times when you tend to have the most energy. Ask for help when you need it so you can focus on the things that are important to you.

  • Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. Relax before you go to bed. This will help you sleep better. Try reading or listening to soothing music.

Coping with appetite changes

Radiation to parts of your body near your mouth, throat, chest, or belly can make it hard for you to eat. Tell your treatment team if you find it hard to eat or you have no appetite. You may be referred to a dietitian to help you with meal planning. There are also medicines that can help control nausea and vomiting, if these are a problem.

Here are some ways to cope with appetite changes:

  • Eat slowly.

  • Eat small meals several times a day.

  • Eat more food when you’re feeling better.

  • Ask others to keep you company when you eat.

  • Stock up on easy-to-prepare foods.

  • Try to eat foods high in protein and calories. Your healthcare provider may recommend liquid meal supplements.

  • Drink plenty of water and other fluids.

  • If you notice yourself losing weight, make sure you bring it to the attention of your treatment team.

  • Ask your healthcare provider before taking any vitamins or over-the-counter supplements. Some of these products can interfere with your treatments.

Dealing with other side effects

Here are some tips to deal with other side effects linked to radiation therapy: 

  • Be ready for hair loss in the area being treated. The hair loss may be permanent. Discuss this with your treatment team.

  • Sip cool water if your mouth or throat becomes dry or sore. Ice chips may also help.

  • Tell your team if you have diarrhea or constipation. You may need to follow a special diet or use medicine to control these problems. Ask before trying anything on your own.

  • If you have trouble swallowing, tell your team right away.

Follow-up

Make follow-up appointments as directed by your healthcare provider.

When to call your healthcare provider

Be sure you know what problems to watch for and when you need to call your healthcare providers. Also know what number to call after office hours and on weekends and holidays.

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Severe headache with neck stiffness

  • Trouble focusing or memory problems

  • Wheezing, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing

  • Pain that doesn’t go away, especially if it’s always in the same place

  • New or unusual lumps, bumps, or swelling

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Unusual rashes, bruises, or bleeding

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or above, or as directed by your provider

  • Chills

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea that doesn’t get better with time

  • Open or oozing skin

  • Pain due to skin irritation that's not getting better with medicine

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