Ask the Expert: Feeling your best when undergoing radiation therapy

Although a person generally feels quite well during radiation treatment, here are some typical side effects with general suggestions on how to cope with each one:

Headache and nausea

As tumour cells are killed, brain swelling may occur, resulting in headache and nausea. Your doctor may prescribe a steroid medication to reduce the swelling. This medication is very effective but can cause a number of side effects, especially if used for long periods. It should not be stopped abruptly, so speak to your health care team about how and when to discontinue it. You may also benefit from medications used to treat nausea.

Hair loss and skin changes

Hair loss will occur where radiation beams are directed and may be temporary or permanent, depending on the dose delivered. If you are interested in wearing a wig and would like to match your natural colour and style, shop for one before the hair begins to fall out, usually in the 2nd or 3rd week of treatment.

The scalp may become tender and red, like a sunburn. Use a mild shampoo with lukewarm water and avoid dyes, hair dryers and curling irons. If you develop itching or flaking skin, your radiation therapists will advise you about the use of appropriate creams. Oozing skin or pain should be promptly reported. Cover your head and ears to protect your skin from sun, wind and extreme temperatures.

Fatigue

Fatigue usually occurs midway through treatment. Activity and exercise may help to prevent or decrease fatigue, but you should also allow for rest periods in the day. Plan your day so your most demanding activities occur when you typically have more energy. If possible, delegate some responsibilities to family and friends.

Bleeding and infections

If you are taking chemotherapy with radiation, remember to have your blood drawn regularly to monitor blood cells. Of greatest concern is the effect on white blood cells (fight infection), and platelets (prevent excessive bleeding). Report signs of infection, especially a fever greater than 38.5º C (101º F), or go to your local emergency room. Also report the appearance of bruises, red spots or unusual bleeding.

It’s important to let your health care team know how you’re doing so they can offer you guidance and support throughout your treatment.

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A special thank-you to Rosemary Cashman, Nurse Practitioner at the BC Cancer Agency for providing this Ask the Expert article. Rosemary volunteers as a member of Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada’s Board of Directors, is the chair of the Advocacy Committee, a member of the Information, Support and Education Committee, and is a member of the organization’s Professional Advisory Group. Rosemary was also the recipient of the 2007 Canadian Association of Nurses of Oncology (CANO) award.

 

This information is provided for information purposes only, and do not represent advice, an endorsement or a recommendation, with respect to any product, service or business, and/or the claims and properties thereof, by Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. Always consult your health care team if you have questions about your medical care and treatments options.
 

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