by Ben Kutz

Radiation treatment for various types of cancer can be very uncomfortable; the machine is daunting and cold, the table is hard, and you have to lay just right to make sure the radiation targets exactly what the radiation-oncology staff intends. 

Like with other treatment modalities of cancer, radiation can come with a lot of side effects such as skin irritation, muscle/joint stiffness, fatigue, swelling, nausea, and more. 

However, as more and more people survive cancer side effects, more and more people also want to give back to those who might be going through the daunting challenge of a new diagnosis or a new treatment. Some of those people that we serve at UPMC in New Castle, PA wanted to give some helpful tips to those who may be facing upcoming radiation treatments! 

For starters, you should talk with your care team about preparing for radiation treatment as soon as you know you’ll be going through it. Some tips for before starting radiation from these amazing survivors are:

  • Have some calming thoughts prepared for yourself if you feel anxious about those treatments. For example, maybe use that time to pray and talk with God or think of memories that are your happy place during the time you’re receiving treatments. 
  • Ask your care team about skincare, lotion, and what to expect radiation to change about your skin. One of the survivors we serve at UPMC suggested applying lotion to the front, back, and side of your suspected radiation field as early as possible to make sure your skin is moisturized and healthy. Your care team will probably recommend some of those products but make sure to discuss those products with your care team so you know you’re using the best ones. Some people find that this helps their skin not peel as much.
  • Mobility! When your radiation-oncology team is determining their plan of action for you, ask them what position they will need you to hold. Take a picture of said position, and then find some stretches to hep you sustain that position more comfortably as you’ll have to hold that same position for each of your treatments. They may want your arm over your head for example. 
  • Discuss a weight management goal with your care team. Your radiation treatment may be more effective if you maintain or lose weight. In some cases, radiation can lead to a loss of appetite. But if you can stay roughly the same shape it may help the team deliver your treatment more precisely. 

During radiation therapy, it can also be difficult to manage the routine of it or the awkward nature of being in the treatment room on your own while the team monitors your therapy. Here are some of our survivor’s suggestions:

  • Introduce yourself to the care team and make a connection with them. This helps you be a bit more comfortable with the people treating you and not to be as self-conscious depending how the need you to dress to effectively treat your cancer. 
  • Before the machine starts delivering radiation, try to relax into the mold you’ll be set in and let the tension out of your muscles. This helps you to remain still and relaxed before the care team tries to tell you “OK, we need you to relax right now.” Which may or may not help. Also, if your knees or arms are supported by a pad of some sort, make sure when you relax after they position that pad for you, that it doesn’t cause a shift in your body, putting pressure on that spot which would urge you to move after a few minutes. 
  • Breathe: If the radiation-oncology staff cue you to breath a certain way (a lower belly breath or a very shallow breath that you hold) practice doing that home in the mirror so you can precisely breathe a certain way for them that will make your treatments go smoothly rather than having to start and stop. 
  • Sleep: While you go through radiation, you will probably notice yourself feeling progressively fatigued as you go through more rounds of treatment. If you start having difficulty with certain tasks that people offer to help you with, accept the help for now. For example, cooking meals or cleaning certain areas of your house may become really challenging for you. If someone offers to help for the time being it can really help you deal with your side effects at hand. When you feel that radiation-specific fatigue, try to rest and save more difficult physical tasks at home for later. Of course, convey this information to your Exercise Oncology Instructor if you’re feeling that fatigue the day of your appointment. For some people, this fatigue may peak a week or so after their treatments have finished. Allow yourself to take a break when you need it. Afterwards, slowly build your energy levels back up with tolerable exercise/physical activity. Last, make sure your place of work is aware that you may need to take some more frequent breaks as you manage with those side effects.
  • Positioning: Continue to do some light stretches everyday to help you maintain your mobility. Also, if the care team tries to move you at all, let them move you but don’t try to shift yourself in the mold at all unless they instruct you to do so. 
  • Comfort: if you’re having some range of motion issues or some skin irritation, try to wear loose fitting clothes that do not cause a lot of friction on the skin. Button-ups, cardigans, and oversized hoodies are great examples! 
  • Meals: ask your care team about meal timing. For some people, a large meal before radiation might make them feel a bit more nauseas whereas for other people eating before radiation may help them relax a bit better. Discuss nutritional interventions with your care team before and during radiation if you are having any issues with that. 

Radiation may be a scary treatment, but with some diligence and planning you can make it a less daunting experience! The survivors offering these tips have been working with us since just after completing radiation or throughout the duration of their radiation therapies! Keep in mind, you can do this and even simple things go a long way!