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Radiation after effects

Posts: 56
Joined: Oct 2008

I was wondering if there was anyone out there who had nhl in the neck? My jaw line where I had radiation feels different (like it shrunk) and I seem to have weird pains in my neck. Is this something to be concerned about or is it to be expected? I finished 25 sessions of radiation at the end of Oct. Thanks so much, Pnktpaz10

terato's picture
Posts: 383
Joined: Apr 2002

Possible Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Normal body tissues vary in their response to radiation. As with tumors, normal tissues in which cells are dividing more rapidly may be affected. This causes some of the side effects of radiation treatment. Since radiation is a local treatment, side effects are usually confined to the area being treated. The early effects of radiation may be seen a few days or weeks after treatments have started and may continue for several weeks after treatments have ended. Other effects may not show up until months, or even years, later. The major side effects are discussed below. Please see the American Cancer Society document, Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families for more ideas on dealing with side effects.


Fatigue is a common effect of radiation, but the exact cause is unknown. Sometimes tumors cause the immune system to make substances that lead to fatigue. Fatigue may also be caused by anemia (a low red blood cell count), poor nutrition, pain, medicines such as steroids or chemotherapy, depression, and stress.

There is no single treatment for fatigue, but if a cause can be found it should be treated. For example, if the fatigue is in part caused by anemia, some patients will benefit from blood transfusions or from medicines that cause the body to make more red blood cells.

Light or moderate exercise with frequent rest breaks may be included in a program to reduce fatigue. Talk with your doctor about this and other treatments that may be helpful.


Modern radiation therapy may cause less damage to the skin than in earlier types of therapy because most of the radiation dose is delivered below the surface of the skin. You may still find that your skin shows an early response to treatments. During the first 2 weeks of treatment, you may notice a faint redness. Your skin may become tender or sensitive. Dryness and peeling of the skin may occur in 3 to 4 weeks. After that, the skin over the treatment area may become darker. This is because of the effect radiation has on the cells in the skin that produce pigment.

The skin may also become dry and itchy. Moisturizing the skin with aloe vera, lanolin, or vitamin E may help. Before using any skin products during treatment, ask the radiation doctor or nurse if it is safe. Some lotions that are fine to use after treatment is finished can actually make things worse during therapy. Avoid perfumes, deodorants, and skin lotions that contain alcohol or perfume. Also avoid powders unless approved by your doctor or nurse. Stay out of the sun as much as you can. If you must be outdoors, wear a hat and clothes that will protect your skin. After about a month of treatment, some people getting radiation may experience some extreme peeling and moist (weeping) areas. Let your medical care team know if this happens to you.

Later effects of radiation may include thinning of the skin. The skin may feel hard, especially if surgery has also been done in the same area. Some people may have trouble with wound healing in the area that was treated.

Mouth and throat

Mucositis (inflammation inside the mouth) is a short-term side effect that may happen when radiation is given to the head and neck area. It usually gets better within a few weeks after treatments are completed. Dry mouth and a loss of taste can be caused by radiation damage to the salivary glands and taste buds. These side effects may go away after treatments are finished, but in some cases may be permanent.

Keeping the mouth clean is important to lower the risk of infection. If your mouth becomes sore, you may be given medicine to numb the mouth or help the pain. It is taken before meals and may make it easier to eat. Be sure to tell your doctor about any pain and whether the medicines to help it are working.

Good nutrition is important for people with cancer. If the pain and irritation make it hard to eat or swallow, you may need to have a feeding tube placed into your stomach for a while so you can take in enough nourishment. Your health care team will help you develop a plan to manage your symptoms. For more suggestions, see the American Cancer Society documents, Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families, Home Care for the Person With Cancer: A Guide for Patients and Families, and Nutrition for the Person With Cancer: A Guide for Patients and Families. Each of these is available by calling 1-800-ACS-2345.

Radiation to the head and neck area can affect your teeth and increase your chances of getting cavities. Mouth care to prevent problems will be an important part of your treatment. Before starting radiation therapy, talk to your dentist and have a complete check-up. Also ask your dentist to talk to your radiation oncologist before your radiation treatments begin. Any dental work that you need may have to be done before radiation begins and daily fluoride treatments may be prescribed to protect your teeth.


Radiation therapy to large areas of the brain can sometimes cause changes in brain function that can lead to memory loss, lower sexual desire, or poor tolerance for cold weather. Nausea, unsteadiness, and changes in vision may also be noticed. Usually these symptoms are minor compared to those caused by a brain tumor, but they can be a bother.

Sometimes a large area of dead cells, called radiation necrosis, forms at the site of the radiation in the brain. This can happen months to years after radiation is given. Patients with radiation necrosis usually do better than patients whose brain tumors come back. But still, a small number of patients with radiation necrosis do poorly or even die.


When radiation treatments include the chest area, the lungs can be affected. One early change is a decrease in the levels of the substance, called surfactant, that helps keep the air passages open. Low surfactant levels keep the lungs from fully expanding. This may cause shortness of breath or cough. These symptoms are sometimes treated with steroids. Depending on the location of the radiation, some people also have trouble swallowing.

Another possible effect of radiation on the lungs is fibrosis (stiffening or scarring). This reduces the ability of the lungs to inflate and take in air. If a large area of the lungs is irradiated (exposed to radiation), these changes can cause shortness of breath and less tolerance for physical exercise. This problem may show up months or years after treatment is completed.

Digestive tract

Radiation to the chest and abdomen may cause swelling and inflammation in the esophagus (swallowing tube), stomach, or intestine. This can cause pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Antacids, sometimes combined with a numbing medicine such as lidocaine, may be helpful in relieving pain from an inflamed esophagus. Nausea and vomiting can also be treated with medicines. If it is severe, some patients may need intravenous fluids to avoid or treat dehydration. Diarrhea can be treated with medicines and by avoiding spicy, fried, or high fiber foods.

Reproductive organs


Radiation to the testicles can cause permanent loss of sperm production. Unless the cancer is in the testicles, they can usually be protected from radiation by using a shield that is known as a "clam shell."

It is harder to protect the ovaries in women getting radiation to the abdomen. If both ovaries are irradiated, permanent loss of fertility may occur along with early menopause. Sparing one ovary can prevent these side effects.

Sexual impact of radiation therapy in women

Radiation to the pelvic area can cause the vagina to be tender and inflamed during and for a few weeks after treatment. Scarring of the area may occur as it heals and can interfere with the ability of the vagina to stretch. The lining of the vagina also gets thinner, which may cause light bleeding after sex. A few women get ulcers, or sore spots, in their vaginas. It may take many months after the end of radiation therapy for these areas to heal.

The scarring that normally occurs after pelvic radiation could shorten or narrow the vagina so much that a woman may not be able to have sex comfortably. This can often be prevented by stretching the walls of the vagina a few times a week. One way to do this is to have sexual intercourse at least 3 to 4 times a week. Another option is to use a vaginal dilator. A dilator is a plastic or rubber rod or tube used to stretch out the vagina. It feels much like putting in a large tampon for a few minutes. Even if a woman is not interested in staying sexually active, keeping her vagina normal in size allows her doctor to do pelvic exams. This is an important part of follow-up care after treatment. Doctors, nurses, and other health care team members can tell you more.

As long as a woman is not bleeding heavily from a tumor in her bladder, rectum, uterus, cervix, or vagina, she may be able to have sex during pelvic radiation therapy. The outer genitals and vagina are just as sensitive as usual. But if the vagina is being radiated, sex may be uncomfortable due to sore spots or inflamed tissues. Women should follow their doctor's guidelines about sex during radiation therapy. Talk with your doctor or nurse about any sexual problems you may have. You can read more about this in the American Cancer Society booklet, Sexuality and Cancer: For the Woman With Cancer and Her Partner.

Sexual impact of radiation therapy in men

Radiation therapy to the pelvis can damage the arteries and nerves that supply the penis and cause problems with erections. The higher the dose of radiation and the wider the area of the pelvis that is treated, the greater the chance that an erection problem will develop.

About one man out of 3 who gets radiation notices a change in his ability to have erections. This change most often develops slowly over the first year or so after radiation treatment. Some men continue to have full erections but lose them before reaching climax. Others no longer get firm erections at all. Men who are older, who didn't have full erections before they were treated, who have high blood pressure, or who have been heavy smokers seem to have a higher risk for erection problems after radiation.

Testosterone is a male hormone that plays an important role in erections. Some men have less testosterone after pelvic radiation. The testicles, which produce testosterone, may have been affected either by a mild dose of scattered radiation or by the general stress of cancer treatment. The testosterone level will usually recover within 6 months of radiation therapy. But if a man notices erection problems or low desire after cancer treatment, the doctor may decide to do a blood test to find out if testosterone is low. Some men can take testosterone to get low levels back to normal. Men with prostate cancer should know that replacement testosterone can speed up the growth of prostate cancer cells. You can read more about sexual problems during cancer in the American Cancer Society booklet, Sexuality and Cancer: For the Man With Cancer and His Partner.

Second cancers

The link between radiation and cancer was confirmed many years ago through studies of the survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan, the exposures of workers in certain jobs, and patients treated with radiation therapy for cancer and other diseases

Some cases of leukemia are related to previous radiation exposure. Most develop within a few years of exposure, with the risk peaking at 5 to 9 years, and then slowly declining. Other types of cancer that develop after radiation exposure have been shown to take much longer to show up. These are solid tumor cancers, like cancer of the breast or lung. Most are not seen for at least 10 years after radiation exposure, and some are diagnosed even more than 15 years later.

Radiation therapy techniques have steadily improved over the last few decades. Treatments now target the cancers more precisely, and more is known about setting radiation doses. These advances are expected to reduce the number of secondary cancers that result from radiation therapy. The risk of second cancers is generally low and must be weighed against the mostly dramatic benefits gained with radiation treatments.

For more information on this please see Second Cancers Caused By Cancer Treatment, available by calling 1-800-ACS-2345.

Revised: 04/07/08


blueroses's picture
Posts: 527
Joined: Jul 2008

Thx for all of that info. It has brought me up to speed a little too on the difference between my radiation back 20 years and that of today. Targeting more specific areas seems to be the difference as well as dosages. Since I was total body radiated on recurrance 18 years ago this all makes sense. I assumed these things to be true of today's treatments but this article was great to read and for confirmation. However, there is an upside to my being radiated that long ago, in the event of power failures I can provide my own light. lol. Thanks for the post Terato. Blessings, Blueroses.

slickwilly's picture
Posts: 339
Joined: Feb 2007

I had 25 treatments to my face for NHL. I was told that there would be a loss of bone density as radiation is not a friend of calcium. I was shot from 5 different directions as my cancer was over a wide area. And its not like they really don't burn up things other than cancer cells. I suspect your wierd pains are nerves or underlying tissue that was burnt up. I hope things will repair themselves with time. I had such large shots that half my sinus is full of scar tissue. I lost the hairs inside my inner ear and that caused problems with walking for a while. The top of my mouth turned completly white but eventually healed. And I had a softball size patch at the back of my head that took quite a while to grow hair. It just takes time for some things to rebuild after we take a beating. But never be afraid to ask your Oncologist about things. It seems we never quit learning here. Best of luck Slickwilly

blueroses's picture
Posts: 527
Joined: Jul 2008

I had total body radiation for my NHL 18 years ago after regular CHOP treatment and localized radiation 2 years before and I was told by one radiologist that the reason I get recurrant chest infections is because I lost all the 'cilia' (sp) (cillia) oh you get the drift. lol. Little hairs that line the respiratory track and into the noise to filter out all the nasty stuff. He said they are burnt off basically in treatment by the radiation. I didn't have hairs in my nose to filter incoming cwap either but just in the last 3 years I have noticed some back and my chest infections are less. Interesting huh, after all that time? Take care Slick, your posting reminded me of this loss of hair issue. Blessings, Blueroses.

soccerfreaks's picture
Posts: 2801
Joined: Sep 2006

As slickwilly indicates, if you have ANY concerns, you should consult your doctors.

That said, I would advise that while the article by ACS quoted by Terato is informative, the part regarding radiation to the head and neck area, in any event, does not capture all of the issues you may experience.

I am a tongue and neck cancer survivor. I had surgery, chemo, and 33 radiation treatments to the head and neck over a seven week period. This ended in early '06. Even today, I have issues with swallowing, and have been told that this is the result, in more or less equal parts, of the surgery and the radiation.

It seems that the radiation caused some swelling of tissue in my mouth and neck, some of which went away, some of which is likely to stay with me, according to my ENT.

Additionally, over the last couple of months, I have begun to experience what I can only describe as cramps on the left side of my neck. I do not know the cause, but will be seeing my ENT in a week or so and will certainly bring that up. It is painful, to be sure, although, thankfully, brief.

It turns out that your neck is critical to survival, as you know. Do not take those pains lightly. Be sure to ask your Oncologist or ENT or some doctor about the potential causes.

Best wishes with this. I hope that they do indeed go away, given time, as has been suggested.

Take care,


blueroses's picture
Posts: 527
Joined: Jul 2008

Hi there Pink, I read all the postings under your topic and it is all is great info. Just wanted to add as well that it never hurts to ask your oncologist, but do your own homework first so that you know what you are talking about and can converse with him/her in a more knowledgeable way. Also I find that if I go loaded with facts and info then if they try to negate what I am saying I have facts to back up why I am asking and what has been confirmed by others with the same issues. Knowledge is power and having some power in our situation is strength building indeed. Take care Pinster. Hugs, Blueroses.

Posts: 56
Joined: Oct 2008

Thank you all for your comments. I did a msg this morning so not sure why it has not shown up... I really appreciate all the feedback and support for each and every one of you. You have helped me a lot! I am grateful for all of you! Pnktopaz10

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