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How Should I Care for Myself During Radiation Therapy?


Wellness image

Get plenty of rest.
Many people experience fatigue during radiation therapy, so it is important to make sure you are well rested. If possible, ask friends and family to help out during treatment by running errands and preparing meals. This will help you get the rest you need to focus on fighting your cancer. If you need more help, ask your social worker or nurse to give you information on a local cancer support group or other resources. Volunteers may be able to help.

Even though it is important to recognize when you might need some rest, there is good evidence to suggest that some physical activity during treatment can help decrease fatigue. For example, many people feel a daily walk helps decrease some of their treatment-related fatigue. Ask your radiation oncologist what the best form of daily exercise might be for you.

With certain types of radiation, you may need to change your diet to minimize side effects.

Follow doctor’s orders.
In many cases, your doctor will ask you to call if you develop a fever of 101 degrees or higher. Be sure to read your doctor’s instructions as far as caring for yourself during treatment.

Eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
A nutritionist, nurse, or doctor may work with you to make sure you are eating the right foods to get the vitamins and minerals you need. With certain types of radiation, you may need to change your diet to minimize side effects. You should not attempt to lose weight during radiation therapy since you need more calories due to your cancer and treatment.

Treat the skin that is exposed to radiation with extra care.
The skin in the area receiving treatment may become red and sensitive, similar to getting a sunburn. Your radiation oncology nurse will review specific instructions for caring for your skin with you. Some guidelines include:

  • Clean the skin daily with warm water and a mild soap recommended by your nurse.
  • Avoid using any lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or powders in the treatment area unless approved by your doctor or nurse. Try not to use products containing alcohol or perfumes.
  • Avoid putting anything hot or cold on the treated skin. This includes heating pads and ice packs.
  • Stay out of the sun. If you must be outdoors, wear a hat or clothing to protect your skin. After treatment, use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.

Seek out support.
There are many emotional demands on you during your cancer diagnosis and treatment. It is common to feel anxious, depressed, afraid, or hopeless. It may help to talk about your feelings. To find a support group in your area, ask your radiation oncology nurse. There are many support groups that meet in person, over the phone, or online. Some support organizations can even help you manage financial issues, such as insurance or co-pays.

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Reprinted by the permission of ASTRO, the American Society for Radiation Oncology, from

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.