<< Back

6 Tips for Getting Through Radiation Treatment

June 18, 2024

About 60% of cancer patients will require radiation therapy as part of their treatment program. And if you’re one of them, we know that getting through treatment can hard.

“A cancer diagnosis and treatment can rock your foundation and leave you uncertain about your future,” says Andrew Salner, MD, the medical director at Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute.

Here’s what you need to know about getting through radiation treatment.

Struggling with a cancer diagnosis?

Start hereCall 855.255.6181

Radiation treats cancer by damaging cancerous cells.

“While normal cells can usually repair injuries, cancer cells don’t have that ability. If there’s a sufficient radiation dose, these cells will die,” says Dr. Salner.

The goal is to do this without causing extensive damage to healthy tissue.

“The radiation oncology team works diligently to focus the radiation precisely on the target and minimize dose to surrounding normal tissues.”

> Related: 4 Ways You Can Prepare for Chemotherapy

Radiation can be a primary treatment or used along with other treatments.

Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer in a number of different ways, including:

  • Eradicating primary cancer
  • Eliminating remaining cancer cells after the primary cancer has been removed
  • Shrinking a tumor prior to surgery
  • Treating recurrent or metastatic cancer and alleviates symptoms like pain.

“Every patient is unique and different, not only in terms of their cancer scenario but also their medical history and life situation,” says Dr. Salner. “Each person needs a tailored care plan.”

Want more health news? Text StartHere to 85209 to sign up for text alerts

But radiation does have side effects.

Like all cancer treatments, radiation does have side effects.

“While fatigue is a common complaint of radiation, patients may also experience other side effects based on the specific tissues treated,” explains Dr. Salner.

Some examples include:

  • Head and neck radiation treatment can cause a sore throat, dry mouth, loss of taste and skin redness due to temporary damage to the throat lining, salivary glands, taste buds and skin.
  • Pelvis radiation treatment could cause urinary frequency or diarrhea related to temporary injury to the bladder and bowel.
  • Lung and lymph node radiation treatment may injure the esophagus and cause swallowing soreness or difficulty.

“Fortunately, the acute side effects are generally temporary and tend to resolve during the weeks after therapy,” adds Dr. Salner.

6 ways to get through radiation a little easier.

The best resource during cancer treatment is your cancer team.

“Your cancer team is with you on day one,” says Dr. Salner. “We help you understand your diagnosis and walk you through your comprehensive treatment plan.”

While that personalized plan will be your best guide, Dr. Salner also shares some ways to help with radiation treatment:

  1. Get some rest: Radiation can make you feel tired, especially after a long day. If you’re working or staying active during treatment, give yourself some extra rest whenever you need it.
  2. Eat right: Most people can stick to their usual diet during radiation therapy, but some might need to modify it due to side effects like nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite or trouble swallowing. Your medical team will help you reduce unhealthy sugar and find the best nutrition plan to keep you fueled.
  3. Drink plenty of fluids: Staying hydrated is essential during radiation therapy. Water is the best option, but other drinks can help you meet your daily hydration goals.
  4. Move your body: Exercise can help reduce fatigue, keep you mobile, flexible, strong and might even lower the risk of cancer returning. Your radiation oncology team can help you create an exercise plan that works for you.
  5. Protect your skin: Radiation therapy can cause temporary redness and irritation. Your medical team will recommend skincare products. Your skin will be sun-sensitive even after recovery for at least 6 months. Use sunscreen and protective clothing to prevent sunburn.
  6. Prioritize your mental health: Going through cancer treatment can be tough. There’s counseling, psychological support, medication, integrative medicine and support groups to help you cope with stress during this journey.

Don’t forget to ask for the support you need.

Cancer can be an isolating experience, which it makes it more important to lean into your support system.

There are lots of ways people can support you, including:

  • Providing nutritious meals
  • Giving rides to treatment
  • Sitting in on appointments to write down important details
  • Helping with everyday tasks

“In addition to your care team, your friends and family can help with love and support,” says Dr. Salner. “Together, we can all help you get through therapy while maintaining the best possible quality of life and functionality.”

Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute