What are the possible after effects of cancer radiation treatments?

Dr. Mark A. O'Rourke, MD
Hematologist & Oncologist

The most common side effects of radiation therapy are temporary skin irritation and temporary fatigue. Radiation to the throat can cause soreness in the mouth. Radiation to the chest can cause discomfort in swallowing. Radiation to the abdomen can cause nausea. Radiation therapy to the pelvis can cause diarrhea. There are less common and rare side effects of radiation therapy.

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After effects from radiation therapy may occur because of permanent damage to normal cells or to structures of the body that are either right in or close to the area exposed to radiation (the field or radiation port).

Radiation treatment is administered to a specific place in the body. after effects occur only in the area of the body that was exposed to the radiation (known as local effects).

In some cases, X-rays in the intended field may scatter and expose surrounding tissues and organs to small doses of radiation. Depending on the position of a tumor, it could also be necessary to include healthy tissue and organs in the field in order to ensure complete treatment of the cancer.

Some radiation after effects may be similar to those caused by chemotherapy.

Examples of after effects that are specific to radiation include:

  • Cataracts, if treated near the eyes, cranial-spinal or if given Total Body Irradiation (TBI))
  • Permanent hair loss if the scalp is radiated over certain dose levels
  • Dental decay, tooth loss, receding gums if radiated near the mouth
  • Loss of tears and the ability to produce saliva if lacrimal or salivary glands in the face are radiated or there has been TBI
  • Problems with thyroid and adrenal glands if the neck is radiated
  • Slowed or halted bone growth in children if bone is radiated
  • Affects on the pituitary gland and multiple hormonal effects if the hypothalamic-pituitary region is radiated
  • Decreased range of motion in the treated area
  • Skin sensitivity to sun exposure in area of skin that is radiated
  • Problems with the bowel system if the abdomen is radiated
  • Secondary cancers in the areas radiated
  • Infertility, if ovaries, testes, cranial-spinal area or TBI is directly radiated

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.