Side effects during/soon after treatment (Early or ‘acute’ side effects)
General – Fatigue is a common side effect of radiation therapy and is more likely to occur in the second half of treatment and is variable between patients. This may persist for a few weeks after treatment and usually settles within 4-6 weeks once radiation therapy is completed.
Local – All other side effects of radiation therapy come from the structures/organs in and just next to where the radiation is being targeted.
Swallowing issues – heartburn like symptoms can occur with radiation therapy. Some patients may temporarily need to have a soft diet during this time and avoid hot drinks and spicy food. Medications can be used over the counter or prescribed by your doctor to aid in symptom control.
Skin changes – redness or tanning of the skin can occur in the area of your chest and back which is receiving treatment. Some patients may notice some itching associated. This temporary problem usually settles down 2-4 weeks after treatment and can be relieved by creams on advice from the treating team. Hair loss can also occur in the area that is being treated.
Side effects well after treatment (Late or long-term side effects)
Late side effects may occur a few months or years after treatment though they are much more rare than early side effects. Depending on the problem these may occur once and then go or may be more persistent over the long term or may come and go over time.
Breathing difficulty – 1 to 6 months after radiation therapy some patients can develop respiratory complications due to inflammation such as shortness of breath, cough and fever. It is possible to alleviate these symptoms with medication that can be prescribed by your treating team.
Lung fibrosis – fibrosis is otherwise known as scarring on the lungs. A small minority of patients can develop potentially permanent scarring of the healthy lung tissue that occurs 6 months after radiation therapy. Usually the amount of scarring is not significant but may result in shortness of breath.
Arm weakness or numbness – this rare problem can sometimes occur in the treatment of tumours that are positioned in the upper part of the lung. The nerves that control arm and hand function lie just behind the collarbone and if damaged can cause numbness or weakness but is expected in only 1 in 1000 patients.
Spinal cord damage – this rare problem can sometimes occur in the treatment of tumours that are positioned near the spine. Damage to the spinal cord can result in numbness and weakness below the level of injury but is expected in only 1 in 1000 patients.Developing another cancer – radiation can cause another cancer in the future, but this is a rare and delaying event that can occur more than 10 years after radiation therapy.