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Radiation Oncology

Effects of Radiation

Does Radiation Damage Healthy Cells?

Radiation often must pass through skin and other organs to reach a tumor, potentially damaging healthy cells near the treatment area and causing side effects such as nausea, fatigue and skin problems. However, with today's technology, radiation therapy can be highly focused on the tumor to avoid exposing the surrounding area to damaging energy. Treatment is more precise and much safer than just five or ten years ago.

There are also body devices and drugs that help protect healthy cells from radiation. Because of these improvements, increasing numbers of people — about a million cancer patients every year — now receive radiation therapy.

What Are the Possible Side Effects?

The chances of side effects vary from patient to patient, depending on tumor location, radiation dose and factors such as other diseases or medications. Some patients have no side effects at all.

The most common side effects of radiation therapy are fatigue, hair loss and/or skin irritation in the treatment area, and nausea. For example, a patient with head and neck cancer may develop mouth sores or lose some hair; a patient with breast cancer may develop skin irritation on the chest; and a patient with stomach or colon cancer may have diarrhea and nausea.

  • If side effects do occur, they may start after two or three weeks of treatments and fade away in the weeks after the final treatment.
  • These side effects can be prevented or managed with medications, dose reductions and good advice on nutrition, skin and hair care, mouth and teeth cleaning, and lifestyle or stress management.
  • In rare cases, radiation can cause more severe and permanent side effects such as damage to the lungs, heart, bowel, bladder or other organs. There is also a small risk that the radiation treatment may actually cause, years later, a new cancer. These risks are related to the dose intensity, the location of the radiation therapy and the expertise and quality controls of the radiation therapy program.

The risk of possible side effects must be weighed against the potential benefits of radiation therapy and should be discussed before starting treatment.