Side effects during treatment
Radiotherapy sometimes causes side effects during the treatment. You may not notice these effects until you have had a couple of weeks of treatment. They start to get better when your treatment ends. You may have
- Reddening and soreness of the skin
- Discomfort and swelling of your breast or chest area
Reddening and soreness of the skin
Radiotherapy can make the skin go red or darker in the treatment area. Some people have no skin problems at all but others can have very sore skin. Whether or not you have a skin reaction depends on your own type of skin and the area being treated.
If you get a skin reaction it will be red (or darker in dark skinned people). It can also feel sore, like a sunburn. It won’t happen straight away but develops gradually after several sessions. Your radiographer looks out for these reactions. But let them know if you feel any soreness. If the skin gets very sore it may peel. But it should heal quickly. Skin reactions usually settle down two to four weeks after your treatment finishes.
You may also get redness or darkening on the other side of your body to the treatment area – for example, on your back if the front of the chest is being treated. This area where the radiotherapy beams leave the body is called the radiotherapy exit site. If the exit site skin becomes red or sore tell the radiotherapy unit staff.
Follow these basic tips to prevent your skin from getting worse.
- You can use any unscented, simple cream on the breast which must be applied thinly, twice a day
- Use a deodorant which contains no metal particles on the side having treatment and ask your radiotherapy staff for advice
- Do not remove any hair on the underarm of the side being treated
- Be gentle with the treatment area by not rubbing the skin – pat the skin gently after you have a shower
Discomfort and swelling of your breast or chest area
The treatment can cause some swelling of the breast or chest area. The swelling usually goes down over a few weeks once the treatment ends. But let your doctor, nurse or radiographer know if the swelling continues.
Tiredness tends to come on slowly as you go through your treatment. So you may not feel tired at the beginning of your course, but you are very likely to by the end. You may feel like having a sleep 1 to 2 hours after each radiotherapy treatment. This tiredness is called fatigue and you may also feel weak and as though you have no energy.
Tiredness can carry on for some months after your treatment has finished. Some research into treating fatigue shows that exercise may be more helpful than rest. Try to schedule in a short walk each day. You may find that you can gradually increase the distance. Pick the time of day when you are feeling least tired.
Side effects after treatment
The radiotherapy may have some lasting effects on your skin and any breast tissue left behind after breast conserving surgery. You may find that you have
- Firmer breast tissue
- Shrinking of breast tissue
- Swelling of the breast area
- Small red marks on your skin
- Darker skin
For most women the appearance of the breast is very good after radiotherapy. But if you are worried about the possible side effects, you can speak to your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) or breast care nurse.