When you have radiation treatment for cancer, your body goes through some changes.
Two weeks after radiation treatment starts, you might have changes in your skin. Your skin and mouth may turn red, your skin might start to peel or get dark, or your skin may itch. Also your skin under your chin may get droopy. Most of these changes will go away.
You may also have dry mouth, mouth pain, nausea, or it may be hard to swallow. You may lose your sense of taste, and you may not be interested in eating.
Your jaw may feel stiff, and it may be harder to open your mouth very wide. Your dentures may no longer fit well, and they may cause sores in your mouth.
Your body hair will fall out 2 -o 3 weeks after radiation treatment starts, but ONLY in the area being treated. When your hair grows back, it may be different than before.
When you have radiation treatment, a health care provider draws colored markings 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 if they come off.
Take care of the treatment area:
Wash gently with lukewarm water only. Do not scrub your skin. Pat dry, instead of rubbing dry.
Do NOT use soaps. Do not use lotions, ointments, makeup, or perfumed powders or other perfumed products on this area. Ask your doctor what is okay to use.
Keep the area that is being treated out of the direct sun.
Do not scratch or rub your skin.
Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any break or opening in your skin.
Wear clothing that protects you from the sun, such as a hat with a broad brim and a shirt with long sleeves. Use sunscreen. Talk with your doctor or nurse about using sun-blocking lotions.
Use only an electric razor to shave. Do not put heating pads or ice bags on the treatment area. Wear loose-fitting clothing around your neck.
Use a toothbrush with soft bristles after meals and at bedtime.
Make your own mouthwash:
Use 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 4 cups of water.
Use this mouthwash once every hour.
Do not use store-bought mouthwash. It has alcohol in it. Store-bought mouthwash will also make your dry mouth worse, or it may cause pain.
Keep your mouth and teeth clean. Clean them often the way your dentist or doctor recommends. Sip water often.
If you use dentures, wear them as little as possible. Stop wearing your dentures if you get sores on your gums. Ask your doctor or dentist about medicine to help with mouth dryness or pain.
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 the doctor or dentist if artificial saliva might be helpful for you.
Drink at least 8 to 10 glasses of liquid each day (not including coffee or tea, or other drinks that have caffeine in them).
Have liquids with your meals.
Sip cool drinks during the day.
Keep a glass of water next to your bed at night. Drink when you get up to use the bathroom or other times you wake up.
Ask your doctor about liquid food supplements. These can help you get enough calories.
Do not eat sugary snacks that may cause tooth decay. Avoid alcoholic beverages, very spicy foods, acidic foods, or foods that are very hot or cold.
If pills are hard to swallow, try crushing them and mixing them with ice cream or another soft food.
Most people who get radiation treatment begin to feel tired after a few days. If you feel tired:
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.
See your dentist often. Your doctor may check your blood counts regularly, especially if the radiation treatment area on your body is large.
Sharma RA, Vallis KA, McKenna WG. Basics of radiation therapy. In: Abeloff MD, Armitage JO, Niederhuber JE, Kastan MB, McKenna WG, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2008:chap 29.
Popovtzer A, Eisbruch A. Radiotherapy for head and neck cancer: Radiation, physics, radiobiology, and clinical principles. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 77.
Baehring JM, Hochberg FH. Cancer and the nervous system: management of primary nervous system tumors in adults. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Los Angeles, CA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 52D.
Perry MC. Approach to the patient with cancer. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 182.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.