Radiation Can Have Some Painful Side Effects — But These Tips Can Help!

Radiation can reduce breast cancer recurrence by up to 70% — but it can also have unfortunate side effects. This is because it damages healthy cells while it’s zapping cancerous cells. It’s common to be nervous or scared of what may happen to your skin during this type of therapy, so we’re here to break it down.

The side effects tend to gradually appear a couple weeks after the treatment has started, and can last for up to six months after it has ended. The severity of the symptoms can vary from person to person, especially when you factor in how many weeks the therapy is required. In some cases, the onset of side effects won’t occur until months or even years after treatment, but this is fairly rare.

What Are The Side Effects Of Radiation Therapy?

hospital linear accelerator

The most common effects include:

  • Damage to skin
    • Sensitivity
    • Skin weepiness
    • Burning
    • Dryness
    • Blisters
    • Peeling
    • Itchiness
  • Fatigue that won’t improve with rest.

Less common effects include:

  • Heart problems
  • Lung problems
  • Low white blood cell count
  • Lymphedema

In extremely rare cases, radiation can lead to a secondary cancer, like sarcoma (cancer of the connective tissues).

Because of radiation, your breasts may change slightly in size, due to fluid build-up or scar tissue. Other potential side effects may make your skin appear thicker; in addition, your pores may be more noticeable, and your skin may even become darker in the treated area.

The changes in your body image may take some getting used to, and then there are the emotional side effects, like fear and anxiety that come from not knowing the outcome of your treatment.

But please understand — many people will not experience severe symptoms, so don’t fret: just be prepared. Since radiation therapy can seem overwhelming and scary, we’ve included a list of items that will help you get through your weeks of treatment.

How Do I Heal My Skin?

young woman with breast pain touching chest

Always check with your doctor before using any topical treatments. Use products that are fragrance-free, gentle, and for sensitive skin. Before you even begin to experience side effects, moisturize the affected area daily, then keep it up throughout treatment. But don’t apply any lotions immediately before your radiation treatments.

  • To moisturize:
    • A&D, Eucerin, Aquaphor, Biafene, and Radiacare are common moisturizers. If you put it on before bed, wear a loose tee so the ointment doesn’t get on your sheets or your favorite nightgown. (One survivor used pure lanolin daily — thick for before bed, thin for right after treatment — and gives a rundown of the other products she used here.)
  • To relieve mild itching/burning:
    • Aloe vera helps with mild itching and burning, as does a 1% hydrocortisone cream.
  • To relieve strong itching/burning:
  • To relieve pain:
    • Over-the-counter pain meds can usually do the trick, but you can ask your doctor for a prescription pain med if it’s too much to bear. Always consult your doctor first!
  • To relieve armpit irritation:
    • One of the major causes of discomfort is friction between your arm/armpit and your torso. Avoid shaving, and ask your doctor about deodorant use. You may be able to use gentle, all-natural deodorants, but if you can’t, cornstarch is a decent substitute to keep your armpits dry and friction-free.
  • To relieve weepy skin:
    • Apply a non-adherent dressing or “second-skin” dressing to protect the sensitive area.
  • Do not peel blisters:
    • This may seem like a no-brainer, but don’t peel off the skin! Especially the top layer of a blister. That bubble of dead skin is protecting the area for new skin to grow back underneath it, so peeling it off can be painful, make the area “weepy,” and even lead to infection. Keep the area dry and only clean it with warm water if necessary.
  • Do not use heating pads or ice packs:
    • Consult with your doctor about possible other solutions to soothe burning.

Tips To Stay As Comfortable As Possible:

Treatment of dry hands skin with cream

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  • Wear loose clothing.
    • Cotton is preferable since it’s breathable.
  • Try not to wear a bra if areas are raw.
    • If you have to wear one, avoid underwires and opt for surgical bras or sports bras.
  • Avoid exposing the area to sun.
    • Even a year after the therapy has ended, the treated area will be more susceptible to sunburn than the rest of your skin, so be sure to use sunscreen.
  • Use warm water in the shower instead of hot.
    • And try to avoid getting your chest area wet (…because that’s super easy to do, right?).
  • Consider switching your shower filter
    • Use one that filters out chlorine since it can irritate your skin.
  • When you wash the area, use only water and perhaps mild soap.
    • Gently use your fingers to wash (not a washcloth or loofah).
  • Balance mild activity and outings with plenty of rest.
    • Staying in bed all day can contribute to fatigue, but so can running around all day.
  • Don’t participate in heavy exercise
    • Exercising will make you work up a lot of sweat — and sweat can irritate the affected area.
  • Stay hydrated.
    • Skin needs water to stay healthy, as water helps carry nutrients to your cells. Plus, since your body is working round-the clock fighting the cancer cells and trying to heal your healthy cells, water is crucial.

Interested in a chemo care basket list? Check out our suggestions here.
Want to know how to prepare yourself for chemo? Check out our helpful lists here and here.

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