10 Radiation Therapy Side Effects And How To Manage Them

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancerous diseases among the male population. 

In the United States, over 248,000 new cases of prostate cancer are reported on an annual basis. 

It is also estimated that about one in every eight men will develop prostate cancer at some point throughout their lifespan. 

Most men do not die from prostate cancer, but the cancerous disease can sometimes be fatal. 

In this case, cancer may spread from the prostate gland to surrounding tissues or other regions of the body. Radiation therapy is a common treatment option to assist in eliminating the cancerous cells in the patient’s prostate. 

Unfortunately, this treatment is known for causing several side effects. We look at common radiation therapy side effects and how men can cope with them. 

Radiation Therapy For Prostate Cancer

Multiple treatments have been developed to assist in treating cancer. The idea of these treatment options is to destroy the cells that have become cancerous, hoping to shrink a cancer tumor and prevent the spreading of these harmful cells. 

Radiation treatment is used to target specific areas of the body.  Whether radiation treatment will be used alone or with other treatments depends on the stage and location of cancer. 

If the patient has low-grade prostate cancer and it is confined only to this gland, then radiation therapy alone may yield effective results. 

In cases where cancer spreads outside of the gland and affects tissue in the surrounding region, radiation therapy is often combined with hormone therapy

There are other scenarios where radiation therapy may be used as a defensive mechanism against prostate cancer. The cancer type that the patient has in the prostate matters here. 

In cases where a man undergoes surgery for prostate cancer and the disease returns, radiation therapy may effectively eliminate the cancerous cells without needing another surgical procedure. 

Radiation treatment can also assist in reducing the spread of cancer when it becomes metastatic while helping the patient experience a relief of the symptoms caused by the cancerous disease. 

There are different types of radiation therapy available for men with prostate cancer. This includes external beam radiation, as well as brachytherapy, which refers to internal radiation. 

In severe cases where cancer spreads toward the bones, an injection is sometimes used to inject radiation directly into the patient’s body. The ideal radiation oncology strategy depends on the cancer type in the prostate gland. 

External radiation therapy is often used. There are, however, cases where external radiation therapy may not be sufficient for the needs of the cancer treatment program. 

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How Radiation Therapy Works

The process starts with the patient visiting a radiation oncologist. The radiation oncologist can determine which type of therapy will work for the patient. This may consist of internal radiation therapy or external radiation. 

The specific mechanisms behind radiation therapy depend on the type of technology used. External beam radiation therapy, also known as EBRT, is currently one of the more popular choices. This uses an external machine that emits a beam from a central point. The beam is concentrated on the region of the male body where the prostate gland is located. 

The treatment is generally provided at an outpatient facility, especially with external beam radiation therapy. In most cases, the patient will need to undergo treatment for five days each week. 

The treatment may continue over several weeks. A specific duration for the treatment will be explained to the patient based on the findings of the tests. 

Radiation therapy actually has similarities to undergoing an x-ray scan. However, the difference is that the radiation emitted by these machines is much stronger than x-ray devices. 

The therapy itself is considered painless by most individuals. There are also newer technologies that can provide more accurate targeting of the tumor that has formed on the prostate gland. 

10 Radiation Therapy Side Effects

While radiation therapy can provide effective results, especially when the treatment is initiated early, certain side effects can develop. 

Patients may sometimes find it difficult to cope with these symptoms, but some strategies can be helpful. 

Some of the most common side-effects that are generally reported amongst men who undergo this particular treatment option include: 

1. Frequent Urination

Due to the effect of the radiation beam on the prostate and surrounding region, which includes the urethra, a man may find that they need to urinate more frequently. In some cases, men also report that they experience pain or difficulty while urinating. 

2. Sexual Dysfunction

It is also possible for a man to find that they have suffered poorer sexual functionality. In some cases, the patient experiences a complete halt of their erectile function. This would make it impossible for the man to participate in sexual activities. 

Radiation therapy can also affect semen volume, which means the treatment can adversely affect a man’s fertility. 

3. Skin Reactions

Some men report a reaction on their skin. This is often the case when the man has sensitive skin in general. 

The reaction may resemble the appearance of sunburn. This occurs at the site where the radiation beam is directed during the radiation therapy treatment. 

4. Fatigue

It is common for men to complain about fatigue when they are actively undergoing radiation therapy to treat prostate cancer. 

5. Stomach Cramps

Another common side-effect is cramping in the abdominal region. The cramping will often be mild, but some patients have complained about more severe cramps in their stomachs. 

6. Diarrhea

Some men experience changes in their bowel movements too. This will often include sessions where the man experiences diarrhea, especially during the days when the man has to go for radiation therapy. 

7. Rectal Leaks

As part of the bowel movement changes, some men also find that they experience some leakage at their rectum. This can be uncomfortable, especially if the individual finds themselves in public when leakage occurs. 

8. Secondary Cancers

The use of radiation therapy for prostate cancer also comes with a risk of developing secondary cancers. These secondary cancers generally affect the surrounding region in the pelvis. 

9. Bleeding

There are also situations where a man may find that bleeding occurs. This may include blood in the urine. Sometimes, blood also appears in stools when the man has a bowel movement. 

10. Pain During Bowel Movement

Men may also find that they experience pain symptoms while having a bowel movement. This can further contribute to abdominal cramps. 

These possible side effects will not occur in every patient who undergoes radiation therapy treatment. It is also important to note that the patient won’t usually experience every side effect.

How To Manage Or Minimize The Side Effects

While the side effects of radiation therapy can be annoying and bothersome, the treatment itself remains an effective strategy against prostate cancer. There are a few strategies men can use to minimize the side effects. 

It is crucial for a man to start by considering any specific side effects they are experiencing. Some medications can sometimes prove helpful to alleviate specific side effects that have been associated with radiation therapy. 

For example, certain medications can be used to lessen the burden of urinary symptoms that happen while a man is undergoing radiation therapy. There are also drugs that can assist in reducing diarrhea. 

It is also important to consider making a few important lifestyle changes. For example, adopting a diet that is lower in fiber can be helpful, as this may assist with improving the side effects that radiation therapy tends to have on the digestive system and bowel movements. 

Keeping hydrated is also essential, as this can further help prevent serious side effects affecting the digestive and urinary tracts. 

If the radiation therapy causes a skin reaction, it is important to switch to skincare products that do not contain scents or other ingredients known to cause irritation. A non-scented moisturizing lotion may also be helpful to prevent dryness in the area where the radiation is received. 

Talking to the cancer care team is also a good idea. Both radiation oncologists and the cancer care team can provide the patient with more details on managing the treatment area and reducing their side effects. 

When To Talk To Your Doctor

In many cases, men can effectively manage the side effects they experience due to radiation therapy from home. Sometimes, however, the side effects can become more severe. 

In such a scenario, it is important for the patient to talk to their doctor. There are treatment options available to help a man cope with the side effects they are experiencing. 

It is advisable to contact a doctor if the symptoms become a significant interference in your daily life. For example, if there is a consistent leakage of urine or at the rectum. 

A visit to the doctor is also a good idea when the urinary symptoms are severe, and the man experiences a significant level of pain. 

In cases where the side effects are not as severe, cancer patients can still talk to the treatment team, such as the radiation oncology nurse, for advice. 

Coping Tips During Radiation Therapy

A few tips can also help make the period during which the patient receives radiation therapy less inconvenient and uncomfortable. We share a few tips to keep in mind below:

  • Sleep helps with recovery and becomes even more important during this stage. The patient should ensure they get enough sleep on a daily basis. 
  • A well-balanced diet that is not too high in fiber is also a good idea. Make sure dishes consumed contain a variety of vegetables and other sources of crucial vitamins and minerals. 
  • Physical activity should also be important, as this further helps to keep the immune system strong

Conclusion

Radiation therapy is one of the more common treatments used to treat prostate cancer. Whether used alone or with a combination of other treatments, side effects caused by the radiotherapy are to be expected. 

This may include urinary symptoms, sexual dysfunction, pain, and more. Some methods can assist in managing and coping with the side effects of radiotherapy. 

Men should be made aware of these strategies to help in reducing the side effects, which can facilitate better compliance with their treatment plan.

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Sources

  1. Elliott SP, Malaeb BS. Long-term urinary adverse effects of pelvic radiotherapy. World J Urol. 2011;29(1):35-41. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3075494/
  2. Wei J, Meng L, Hou X, et al. Radiation-induced skin reactions: mechanism and treatment. Cancer Manag Res. 2018;11:167-177. Published 2018 Dec 21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6306060/
  3. Jacobsen PB, Thors CL. Fatigue in the radiation therapy patient: current management and investigations. Semin Radiat Oncol. 2003 Jul. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12903024/

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