The Side Effects of Radiation

Short-term side effects

Short-term side effects occur during the treatment or directly afterward, usually within 6 months.

Common short-term side effects include:

  • Pain: Some people experience mild discomfort or pain around the breast, or stiffness in the shoulder area. Over time, treatments should become less uncomfortable.
  • Skin changes: Skin damage is a common side effect of radiation therapy, and having a good skin care routine is essential during treatment. Changes to the skin can include:
    • color changes
    • peeling or flaking
    • skin that feels tender, dry, itchy or sore
    • blisters
    • excess moisture and weeping
  • Swelling: The breast or surrounding tissue may become swollen or inflamed. Swelling should reduce within a few weeks of the end of treatment.
  • Hair loss in the armpit or chest: When a doctor applies radiation to the lymph nodes in the armpit and chest, it can cause hair loss in these areas.
  • A sore throat: Applying radiation to the lymph nodes around the collarbone can cause a sore throat or difficulty swallowing. These symptoms should improve once the treatment is complete.
  • Fatigue: Radiation can cause someone to feel very tired or fatigued. Being in the hospital and having other treatments, such as chemotherapy, can worsen this fatigue. It is important to sleep and rest as much as possible during treatment.

Long-term side effects

Long-term side effects occur months or years after treatment has ended.

Long-term side effects can include:

  • Breast changes: The breasts may shrink or become more dense after radiation. Some women have reported problems breastfeeding.
  • Brachial plexopathy: Radiation to the breast or chest wall can sometimes damage the nerves that run through the arm, wrist, and hand. Nerve damage can cause numbness, pain, or weakness in the area.
  • Lymphedema: Lymphedema is swelling of the arm, hand, or chest. Radiation can sometimes damage nearby lymph nodes, leading to a buildup of lymph fluid.

Rare side effects

Rare side effects of radiation can include:

  • Nausea: Radiation can cause nausea, but this side effect is extremely rare.
  • Rib fracture: It is possible for radiation therapy to weaken the ribs, making them more prone to break or fracture. However, with new treatment protocols in practice, this is very rare.
  • Heart problems: If a doctor applies radiation to the left side of the chest, it can damage the heart. However, with new protocols in place, this is also rare.
  • Lung problems: Very rarely, radiation causes inflammation in the lungs. The medical term for this is radiation pneumonitis, and symptoms include shortness of breath, a cough, and a low-grade fever, which will go away over time.
  • A second cancer: In very rare cases, radiation exposure can increase the risk of developing a second cancer.

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