When you have radiation treatment for cancer, your body goes through changes.
About 2 weeks after your first treatment:
- It may be hard to swallow, or swallowing may hurt.
- Your throat may feel dry or scratchy.
- You may develop a cough.
- Your skin over the treated area may turn red, start to peel, get dark, or it may itch.
- Your body hair will fall out, but only in the area being treated. When your hair grows back, it may be different than before.
- You may develop a fever, more mucus when you cough, or feel more out of breath.
For weeks to months after radiation treatment, you may notice shortness of breath. You are more likely to notice this when you are active. Contact your doctor if you develop this symptom.
When you have radiation treatment, color markings are drawn on your skin. DO NOT remove them. These show where to aim the radiation. If they come off, do not redraw them. Tell your doctor instead.
To take care of the treatment area:
- Wash gently with lukewarm water only. DO NOT scrub.
- DO NOT use soaps.
- Pat your skin dry.
- DO NOT use lotions, ointments, makeup, perfumed powders, or any other perfumed products on this area. Ask your health care provider what it is OK to use.
- Keep the area that is being treated out of direct sunlight.
- DO NOT scratch or rub your skin.
- DO NOT put heating pads or ice bags on the treatment area.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing.
Tell your provider if you have any breaks or openings in your skin.
You will likely feel tired after a few days. If so:
- DO NOT try to do too much in a day. You probably will not be able to do everything you are used to doing.
- Try to get more sleep at night. Rest during the day when you can.
- Take a few weeks off work, or work less.
You need to eat enough protein and calories to keep your weight up.
To make eating easier:
- Choose foods that you like.
- Try foods with gravy, broths, or sauces. They will be easier to chew and swallow.
- Eat small meals and eat more often during the day.
- Cut your food into small pieces.
- Ask your doctor or dentist if artificial saliva might help you.
Drink at least 8 to 12 cups (2 to 3 liters) of liquid each day, not including coffee or tea, or other drinks that have caffeine in them.
DO NOT drink alcohol. DO NOT eat spicy foods, acidic foods, or foods that are very hot or cold. These will bother your throat.
If pills are hard to swallow, try crushing them and mixing them with ice cream or other soft food. Ask your doctor or pharmacist before crushing your medicines. Some medicines do not work when crushed.
Watch out for these signs of edema (swelling) in your arm.
- You have a feeling of tightness in your arm.
- Rings on your fingers get tighter.
- Your arm feels weak.
- You have pain, aching, or heaviness in your arm.
- Your arm is red, swollen, or there are signs of infection.
Ask your provider about exercises you can do to keep your arm moving freely.
Dry, Sore Throat, or Cough
Try using a humidifier or vaporizer in your bedroom or main living area. DO NOT smoke cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. DO NOT chew tobacco.
Try sucking on sugar-free candy to add saliva to your mouth.
Mix one half teaspoon or 3 grams of salt and one quarter teaspoon or 1.2 grams of baking soda in 8 ounces (240 milliliters) of warm water. Gargle with this solution several times a day. DO NOT use store-bought mouthwashes or lozenges.
For a cough that does not go away:
- Ask your provider which cough medicine is OK to use (it should have low alcohol content).
- Drink enough fluids to keep your mucus thin.
Your doctor may check your blood counts regularly, especially if the radiation treatment area is large.
Radiation - chest - discharge; Cancer - chest radiation; Lymphoma - chest radiation
Doroshow JH. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 179.
National Cancer Institute. Radiation therapy and you: Support for people with cancer. Updated May 2007. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/radiationttherapy.pdf. Accessed March 10, 2016.
Review Date 2/11/2016
Updated by: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.