Side effects of radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer

The side effects of radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer will depend on which part of the body is treated and the dose and duration of treatment. Most side effects can be managed with medical care.

Receiving radiotherapy is painless. However, depending on which part of the body is being treated, it may be necessary to lie in an uncomfortable position during treatment. Some women find it helpful to take a painkiller 30 minutes or so before treatment.

Possible side effects of radiotherapy include:

  • tiredness
  • the skin in and around the treated area may become red, dry, itchy or blistered, although skin problems are rare with the doses of typically used to treat secondary breast cancer
  • radiotherapy to the brain typically causes hair loss; the hair will usually grow back 2–3 months after treatment but it may be thinner than it was before
  • radiotherapy to the abdomen (stomach) can cause nausea and vomiting; taking an anti-emetic drug before treatment can stop this happening
  • radiotherapy to the upper back or chest can cause oesophagitis.

About one in ten people who have radiotherapy to the brain have other side effects, including headaches, in addition to loss of energy (lethargy), nausea and vomiting. These side effects can often be prevented or treated using drugs called steroids.

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