If a partner, loved one, friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer, it’s only natural to want to support them. But sometimes it can be difficult to know just how you can help. You might find it hard to know what to say about the diagnosis or feel it’s easier to avoid the topic altogether, but this can leave the other person feeling like they’re facing cancer alone.
Although you are not the one diagnosed with cancer, it can still be a very hard time for you, and effect your life immensely in ways you hadn’t expected. It may change the dynamics of your relationship, and this can be difficult to cope with. You will need time to accept things, and you may have many different emotions and worries of your own to deal with – feeling totally helpless is very common.
Taking care of someone with cancer may involve learning some basics about radiotherapy treatment if this is part of their treatment plan. Radiotherapy treatment is one of the most common treatments for many types of cancer. It may be used to cure a cancer or shrink tumours, stop cancer from coming back, or treat symptoms of cancer where it has spread to other areas of the body. Radiotherapy can be a standalone treatment or used in combination with other therapies.
It’s normal to have questions about how to help someone receiving radiotherapy treatment. If you have questions after reading this article, talk to the medical team caring for your loved one.
How does radiation treat cancer?
Radiotherapy uses high-energy waves to destroy or damage cancer cells. These waves may be x-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, or protons. Radiation works by breaking the DNA in cancer cells, which stops them from growing and multiplying, causing them to die. DNA contains the instructions needed for any living organism or cell to develop, survive, and reproduce.
Most of the time, radiation is only aimed at the area that has cancer and doesn’t reach the rest of the body. It also tends to do less damage to normal healthy cells and tissues compared to chemotherapy and other treatments that travel throughout the body in the blood stream.
What kinds of radiotherapy are used to treat cancer?
The most common type of radiotherapy is external beam radiation, which directs high-energy beams from a machine outside the body into the site where the cancer is.
Some cancers are better treated using internal radiation, where an implant is put inside the body near the site of the cancer. Another form of internal radiation is systemic radiation, when a radioactive drug is used and either given by mouth or put into a vein. External and an internal radiation implant mostly affect only the part of the body that has cancer, while systemic radiation travels throughout the body.
What effects can radiotherapy have?
Side effects depend on the type of radiation being given, the type and location of cancer being treated, if there are other health problems, and if the patient is also getting another type of cancer treatment. Some people may have many side effects, while others may have very few. The most common side effects are skin problems and fatigue or tiredness.
Often a combination of more than one type of treatment is used, and different treatments cause different side effects. These can include:
- a lowered immune system, which can make people more likely to get infections
- feeling very tired (fatigue – see below)
- changes in appearance, such as hair loss, changes to body shape, and weight changes
- changes in how the body works or feels, such as feeling or being sick, diarrhoea or constipation
- eating problems, such as a loss of appetite, sore mouth, or problems chewing or swallowing
- emotional changes, such as anxiety, anger and depression.
Fatigue means feeling very tired in the body and mind, and is different from just feeling tired. Usually, fatigue is not caused by treatment alone, but things like low blood counts, stress or emotions. It’s normal for patients to feel anxious, depressed, afraid, angry, frustrated, alone or helpless. It can help to talk to other people going through the same thing. Encouraging your loved one to seek support outside of their close circle can help with these feelings. Ask the medical team for advice on how to access support groups that might be appropriate.
The level of fatigue can also be affected by changes in diet and physical activity. Staying active, while also getting enough rest and eating a healthy diet, may help. Talk to the medical team about other ways to manage fatigue. Ensuring there is access to support from the multidisciplinary team of psychologists, dieticians, specialist radiotherapy nurses, speech therapist etc, if needed, is essential in guiding a patient thorough their cancer diagnosis, treatment and beyond.
External beam radiation can make the skin in the area being treated look and feel like it’s been sunburned. It may hurt, itch, peel or become flaky. Try to protect the area from rubbing or scratching. Wearing loose-fitting, natural fibres over treatment areas can help a patient’s comfort during this time. It is important not to use anything on the skin in the treatment area unless it has been approved by the medical team, including soaps, lotions, deodorants, medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, or powder.
Protect the skin from the sun using clothing, or, if approved by the medical team, you can use a broad spectrum sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50.
Does radiation cause hair to fall out?
Radiation can cause hair loss, but only in the area that’s being treated. For example, hair on the head will fall out only if radiation is given to the head. However, other treatments that could be prescribed alongside radiotherapy may cause hair loss, so this must be checked.
Is any special diet needed during radiotherapy treatment?
The medical team may recommend dietary changes depending on the type of radiation and area being treated. Otherwise, eating a healthy balanced diet is important to stay as strong as possible during treatment.
Sometimes radiation to the head, neck, or stomach area can cause nausea, and it may help to offer smaller meals or snacks throughout the day and lots of water or other drinks. Radiation to the head and neck may also cause mouth sores that can make eating hard. Try offering soft foods in small amounts more often throughout the day. Being faced with large meals can be daunting when you don’t feel like eating.
Is it safe to be around others while getting radiotherapy treatment?
People getting external beam radiation do not have radiation in their body and are not radioactive. People getting internal and systemic radiation can give off radiation for a short time.
With internal radiation, you may need to avoid touching the patient until the implant is removed or limit the time you spend being very close to them. With systemic radiotherapy, you may also have to avoid the person’s bodily fluids for a few days after treatment.
Talk to the medical team about any precautions so you understand exactly what you should and should not do as a caregiver during treatment.
Looking after yourself
During what it such a difficult time for a cancer patient it is hard to know how to best support someone. We hope this article goes some way towards helping to understand the implications of receiving radiotherapy treatment and some tips to help support. Whilst the impetus is on supporting your loved one, it is also important to ensure you look after yourself and seek help where needed. You will find it more difficult to support your loved one if you are not looking after yourself and your own wellbeing. There are support groups for those close to or caring for people with a cancer diagnosis. These can be found and accessed via Macmillan and Cancer Research UK.
Or get in touch with us if you would like further help and support regarding radiotherapy treatment.
- How does radiation treat cancer?
- What kinds of radiotherapy are used to treat cancer?
- What effects can radiotherapy have?
- Skin problems
- Does radiation cause hair to fall out?
- Is any special diet needed during radiotherapy treatment?
- Is it safe to be around others while getting radiotherapy treatment?
- Looking after yourself