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Questions About Radiation Oncology

Most every person who is treated for cancer has questions. Click here to read some of the most frequently asked questions answered by our doctors and nurses.

Radiation therapy is a powerful treatment. Some people experience side effects from their therapy. Below are some of these conditions, along with information written by our Radiation Oncology nurses to help patients alleviate the side effects.

Bladder Irritation

When your bladder is in the area being treated with radiation, you may feel frequency of urination, burning and urgency. You may also experience spasm-like sensations when urinating.

What causes bladder irritation?
Cells that line the bladder grow rapidly and are very susceptible to radiation. The irritation is temporary.

Self-care measures

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Diarrhea

Diarrhea varies from person to person and depends on the dose of radiation and how large an area is being treated. Diarrhea does not usually occur until after you have had several treatments. Your stools may become very soft or liquid.

What causes diarrhea?
Radiation is especially effective on cells that grow rapidly. The cells that line the gastrointestinal tract (mouth, stomach, intestines and colon) are rapidly dividing and growing and are therefore very susceptible to the effects of radiation.

Self-care measures

Notify your primary nurse and physician if:

After treatment is completed :

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Fatigue

Fatigue is a common side effect of radiation therapy. The extent to which this is a problem varies from person to person. You may have very little fatigue or have varying degrees of tiredness. Most people will not notice any change the first couple of weeks during treatment. You may notice it more if you are maintaining all of your usual activities.

Why might I feel tired?
There are several reasons for feeling fatigue. They are:

Self-care measures:

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Low Blood Count

Low blood counts (bone marrow depression) are sometimes encountered by people receiving radiation therapy. If your blood counts become low, you may not feel any different, but you could potentially develop other effects such as bleeding, infection or fatigue.

What causes low blood counts?
The bone marrow is your blood cell producing factory. It quickly produces the white blood cells that fight infection, platelets that prevent bleeding, and red blood cells that carry oxygen. Radiation affects these quickly dividing cells and can temporarily or permanently decrease their production. A decrease will not occur unless the treatment area includes a significant portion of the bones that produce blood cells (pelvic bones, sternum, ribs and spinal column). It is important to watch for infection or bleeding. Your blood count will be checked weekly to monitor radiation effects. Your nurse will tell you if your blood counts become low.

Self-care measures
If you are told by your physician or nurse that your white blood cell count is low:

If you are told by your physician or nurse that your platelet count is low:

Notify your primary nurse and physician if:

After treatment is completed
Usually your blood counts will return to normal within 3-4 weeks after ending your treatment. Occasionally it can take longer for counts to normalize.

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Mouth Irritation

Saliva aids in eating, talking and swallowing. Radiation to the throat and mouth areas causes dryness and irritation. The amount of dryness depends on the radiation dosage and extent of treatment. It may begin within 1-2 weeks of your treatments and continue after treatment is complete. It may take up to 6 months for saliva to return.

What causes mouth irritation and dryness?
Cells that line the mouth and throat are rapidly growing and are therefore very sensitive to radiation effects. When the salivary glands are within the treatment area, there is a decreased production of saliva.

Self-care measures

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Taste Alterations

Radiation directed to the mouth will affect taste buds located on the tongue. Foods may taste differently to you or you may have a temporary aversion to some foods. It may take 2 or 3 months or more before your taste sensations return.

Why is taste affected?
The tongue's lining and taste buds are susceptible to radiation. A decrease in saliva also causes changes in taste.

Self-care measures

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Loss of Appetite

Loss of appetite is a common symptom associated with cancer.

Why might my appetite be affected?
There are several reasons why you may experience a decreased appetite during radiation therapy. Loss of appetite can be due to the fatigue and stress related to your illness and treatment. It can also occur because of the change in your normal cells, which changes taste and causes difficulty in swallowing, nausea, dry mouth and diarrhea. Prior abdominal surgery can affect your ability to eat. Changes in normal routines can also affect your appetite.

Self-care measures
Maintaining good nutrition is particularly important during radiation therapy. Keeping protein and calorie intake high will help with healing and building new tissues. You will be weighed weekly to monitor your progress.

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Hair Loss

We spend a great deal of time and money on physical appearance, and self-image is greatly affected by hair. Losing it is very stressful and a constant reminder of cancer and its treatment. It is normal to feel anger, sadness, embarrassment or fear with the loss of hair.

Why is there hair loss?
There will be a loss of hair within the radiation treatment area usually within 2 weeks of treatment. The amount of loss depends on the dose of radiation and the size of the treatment area. Hair grows quickly and therefore is very sensitive to the effects of radiation. Regrowth of hair usually starts once radiation treatments are over, unless chemotherapy is being administered. Often it may take 6 months or more for hair to return. There may be changes in the hair when it does return.

Self-care measures

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Skin Care

Your skin in the irradiated area will gradually dry and redden. The amount of redness varies from person to person and depends on the length of treatment, radiation dosage, area being treated and skin type. In some patients, it is a desired effect for the skin to get very red.

Why is my skin affected?
Radiation is especially effective on cells that are rapidly growing, such as skin cells. The skin in certain areas will be more sensitive to the effects of radiation. These areas include where two skin surfaces touch or are thinner (breast, buttocks, armpit, groin, face and genitals) or where there was an incision or previous injury.

Self-care measures
It will usually take 2 or 3 weeks before you notice much redness, dryness or itching.

After treatment is completed

Disclaimer Notice: The information contained in this online brochure is intended for general information purposes only. You should always seek the advice and assistance of your radiation oncologist or nurse if you experience symptoms or side effects such as the ones described here. The self-care measures described above are not meant to replace the advice of your personal physician, nor do we advocate following these measures without consulting a professional.

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