Side effects of radiation

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Radiation targets cancer cells but can also damage healthy cells, which can cause different side effects. Read an overview of these side effects, find out when you may notice them whether you can predict which side effects you may have.

Key points

  • Side effects of radiation are caused when the radiation damages healthy cells in addition to the cancer cells.
  • Side effects you experience will depend on the part of the body being treated, size of the area and strength of radiation.
  • Some side effects may be noticed right away but others may develop more slowly.
  • Not everyone will get all possible side effects, and for many people side effects are mild.

Side effects of radiation

The goal of radiation therapy is to target cancer cells. Unfortunately, radiation can also affect healthy cells, which can lead to changes in how you feel and how your body works. These are called side effects.

Some side effects, such as feeling tired, are common with radiation. Other side effects depend on the:

  • part of your body being treated
  • size of the area being treated
  • strength of the radiation

When will I notice side effects?

The damage to cells from radiation builds up over time. For this reason, it may take a while before you start to notice any side effects. Some side effects will show up quickly and others will develop more slowly. Some will last only a short time and then go away, but others may stay with you.

The next sections describe some side effects particular to radiation therapy. These include:

Some other common side effects of radiation are:

You will learn about these side effects and tips to manage them in the section on managing your symptoms.

Remember, not everyone gets all the possible side effects and for many people side effects are mild.

How can I predict which side effects I might have?

Each person responds differently to radiation therapy. It’s also common to have other types of treatment such as chemotherapy combined with radiation. These other treatments can cause side effects too.

For these reasons, it’s tough to predict exactly which side effects you might have. Your health-care team will talk to you and your parent/caregiver about the kinds of side effects you can expect and how you can manage them.

Understanding a bit about possible side effects, how to handle them and who can help can make coping with radiation a little easier.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019