When you have radiation treatment for cancer, your body goes through changes. Follow your health care provider's instructions on how to care for yourself at home. Use the information below as a reminder.
What to Expect at Home
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 provider 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 provider instead.
To take care of the treatment area:
- Wash gently with lukewarm water only. Don't scrub.
- Use a mild soap that doesn't dry out your skin.
- Pat your skin dry.
- Don't use lotions, ointments, makeup, perfumed powders, or any other perfumed products on this area. Ask your provider what is OK to use.
- Keep the area that is being treated out of direct sunlight.
- Don't scratch or rub your skin.
- Don't 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:
- Don't 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 provider 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.
Don't drink alcohol or 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 provider or pharmacist before crushing your medicines. Some medicines do not work when crushed.
Watch out for these signs of lymphedema (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 provider 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-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 169.
Machtay M, Teba CV. Pulmonary complications of anticancer treatment. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Kastan MB, Doroshow JH, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 47.
National Cancer Institute website. Radiation therapy and you: support for people with cancer. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/radiationttherapy.pdf. Updated October 2016. Accessed July 1, 2022.
Review Date 1/25/2022
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, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.