Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Side effects of radiation therapy vary in their degree of severity from mild to moderate. Each patient may not experience the same side effects and some may not experience any at all. You are more likely to experience certain side effects if you are undergoing or have already had chemotherapy, due to the way it affects healing.

Skin Changes

Skin changes are the most common side effect of radiation therapy. The following is a list of changes you mights see:[1]

  • Redness: overlying the area that has been irradiated, looks like a mild sunburn
  • Pruritus: the skin will be irritated after radiation, causing it to feel itchy
  • Dryness: radiation may cause the skin directly over the area to feel dry
  • Swelling: the treatment area may seem more swollen immediately after treatments due to tissue edema.

What causes the skin changes seen with radiation therapy? Radiation kills cancer cells by damaging the DNA within the cell. When the DNA is damaged, the cells cannot replicate, grow and divide. When the cells can no longer do this, they die. In order to reach the area to be treated, radiation must travel through the skin. Fortunately, the skin is able to withstand quite a bit of radiation, however, it does tend to become red and sore over the course of a treatment period.

Skin changes typically appear between the second and third week of treatment.[2] Most of these changes will disappear when treatment is through but occasionally the skin may appear slightly more red or tan than the surrounding skin.

Tips to Manage Skin During Radiation – Take time to care for your skin during radiation therapy. Wash your skin gently with soap and warm water, not hot water. Avoid excessive heat or cold to the area. Do not put any creams or lotions on your skin before discussing it with your doctor. If your skin becomes infected, your doctor can prescribe antibiotic cream or pills to treat it.

Other Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

In addition to skin changes, there are other potential side effects of radiation therapy.

Pain – It is not uncommon to have pain in around the area that has been treated. This may be on the breast itself or in the axillary region. To avoid this, try the following tips:

  • Use cornstarch under the arm as a deodorant instead of standard deodorant. This will keep the area dry, avoid skin rubbing on skin and causing more irritation.
  • Do not shave your armpits, you may want to try an electric razor or avoid shaving at all.
  • Wear loose clothing that does not irritate the skin.

Fatigue – Throughout the radiation therapy treatment course you may feel fatigued and down. It requires several trips to and from the treatment facility, each day for several weeks. This can be exhausting and leave you feeling worn out. It is estimated that 90 % of breast cancer patients experience fatigue during their treatment.

Symptoms to watch for:[3]

  • Loss of energy
  • Sleeping more often
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Feeling tired despite having a full night of sleep
  • Loss of concentration

Being aware of your fatigue and how you manage it is extremely important to your well-being during your treatment. Speak with your health care providers and be honest about how you feel. Fatigue is a real consequence of breast cancer treatment, but it can be alleviated by several methods including, exercise, massage and yoga.

Holistic Healing – An Alternative to Traditional Methods

Holistic medicine uses alternative methods of treatment such as spices and other natural substances to alleviate symptoms. For example, a recent study looked at the effects of a common household spice, turmeric, for treatment of radiation side effects. Curcumin, the active ingredient of turmeric, was found to decrease the amount of inflammation at the radiation site. Researchers are attempting to verify if these anti-inflammatory properties can also be used to kill cancerous cells.[4]


Radiation Therapy side Effects and Ways to Manage Them. (n.d.). Retrieved from National Cancer Institute:

2  Andrew H. Ko, M. M. (2002). Everyone’s Guide to Cancer Therapy. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

3  Ibid

4  Quinn, L. (2010). Role of Curcumin in Radiaiton Therapy. Oncology News , 15.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.