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Discharge Instructions for Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and help you in your fight against cancer. Radiation destroys cancer cells gradually, over time. The goal of therapy is to focus on and kill as many cancer cells as possible. Radiation can also damage or kill some of the normal cells that are closest to the tumor. Damaged normal cells can repair themselves, often within a few days.

Caring for your skin

You should ask your healthcare provider for specific products that he or she recommends for washing and bathing. In general, use a mild nondetergent soap and warm (not hot) water to clean the area receiving radiation. Pat the region dry rather than rubbing.

Your healthcare provider may give you products to moisturize the skin and prevent infection. The goal is to prevent cracks or breaks in the skin that may be sensitive from treatment: 

  • Don’t be surprised if your treatment causes skin redness, and a type of "sunburn" over time. Some radiation treatments can cause this. 

  • Ask your therapy team what lotion to use. Also ask for directions about when and how to apply it.

  • Avoid prolonged or direct sunlight on the treated area. Ask your therapy team about using a sunscreen. You do not have to avoid going outside altogether, but must take appropriate precautions.

  • Don’t remove ink marks unless your radiation therapist says it’s OK. Don’t scrub or use soap on the marks when you wash. Let water run over them and pat them dry.

  • Protect your skin from heat or cold. Avoid hot tubs, saunas, heating pads, or ice packs.

  • Avoid clothing that causes friction or rubbing on the skin.

Fighting fatigue

Radiation therapy may cause you to feel tired. Your body is working hard to heal and repair itself. To feel better, try these things:

  • Do light exercise each day. Take short walks.

  • Plan tasks for the times when you tend to have the most energy. Ask for help when you need it.

  • Relax before you go to bed. This will help you sleep better. Try reading or listening to soothing music.

Coping with appetite changes

Here are ways to cope:

  • Tell your therapy team if you find it hard to eat or you have no appetite. You may be referred to a nutritionist to help you with meal planning.

  • Radiation to certain internal sites can cause nausea, depending on the location of treatment. This can affect your appetite. Think of healthy eating as part of your treatment. Try these tips:

    • Eat slowly.

    • Eat small meals several times a day.

    • Eat more food when you’re feeling better.

    • Ask others to keep you company when you eat.

    • Stock up on easy-to-prepare foods.

    • Eat foods high in protein and calories. Your healthcare provider may recommend liquid meal supplements.

    • Drink plenty of water and other fluids.

    • Ask your healthcare provider before taking any vitamins or over-the-counter supplements. Such products are not regulated by the FDA and can sometimes interfere with your treatments. 

Dealing with other side effects

Here are suggestions to deal with other side effects: 

  • Be prepared for hair loss in the area being treated. The hair loss may be permanent. Be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider.

  • Sip cool water if your mouth or throat becomes dry or sore. Ice chips may also help.

  • Tell your healthcare provider if you have diarrhea or constipation. You may be given a special diet.

  • If you have trouble swallowing liquids, tell your healthcare provider.


Make a follow-up appointment as directed by your healthcare provider.


When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Unexpected headaches

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Ongoing fatigue

  • Wheezing, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing

  • Pain that doesn’t go away, especially if it’s always in the same place

  • New or unusual lumps, bumps, or swelling

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Unusual rashes, bruises, or bleeding

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or chills

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea that doesn’t improve with time

  • Skin breakdown; significant pain due to skin irritation

Online Medical Reviewer: Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Herold, David M., MD
Last Review Date: 1/13/2016
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