Radiotherapy Guide

Coping with Radiation Therapy and its Side Effects

Here are some handy tips suggested by radiotherapy patients and experts to make living with the side effects of radiotherapy that little bit easier. We also asked them if there were any products they found particularly helpful in providing relief from the side effects.

In this guide, we cover the following side effects of radiotherapy:

Feeling Tired | Loss of Appetite | Skin Problems | Hair Loss | Nausea | Diarrhoea | Mouth Problems | Discomfort When Swallowing | Difficulty Having Sex | Stiff Joints And Muscles | Flu-Like Symptoms

Why does Radiation cause side effects?

In addition to destroying cancerous cells, radiotherapy can also cause temporary damage to healthy cells. Therefore, people often experience side effects after courses of radiotherapy, although the severity of these varies person to person.

Radiotherapy Side Effects

Feeling Tired

“Don’t be afraid to ask family or friend if they can help with your shopping, childcare or housework.” – Jill, 51

  • Rest or take naps during the day when you can
  • Do light exercise such as walking and/or keep up with your normal exercise routine. This can increase feel-good endorphins and boost energy levels, making you feel less tired. Experts suggest talking to your healthcare team about suitable aftercare activities
  • Aromatherapy oils aid a deeper, more restful sleep, so why not spray some lavender on your pillow, use a natural sleep balm, or if distracting thoughts are a problem, mindfulness exercises can help clear the mind
  • For a deeper, more restful sleep, why not spray some lavender on your pillow or use a natural sleep balm, or do a mindfulness exercise to clear brain noise?
  • Colouring books are a good way to clear your mind and refocus it on relaxation, helping you achieve a deeper sleep

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Cotswold Lavender Slumber Spray

Badger Sleep Balm

The Little Book of Mindfulness by Dr Patrizia Collard

The Art of Mindfulness Colouring Book

Gentle Healing for Cancer Patients and Survivors


Loss of Appetite

Good nutrition during radiotherapy treatment helps you remain as healthy as possible.

“Eating nutrient-dense meals is a factor in recovery from radiation therapy. Eating low nutrient meals will not give the body what it needs to heal and as a result, will slow down recovery time.” – The Southeast Radiation Oncology Group

“If the smell of cooking puts you off, ask family and friends to cook food in their house, or barbecue it outside; it certainly helped me!” – Monica, 56

  • Eat smaller, frequent meals if you have difficulty eating, and take time to chew your food to allow it to digest
  • Choose fresh and colourful foods for your diet including dark green, red and orange vegetables, seafood and lean meat and poultry
  • Some people suggested preparing and freezing meals before beginning a course of radiotherapy, in case they became too tired to cook properly during treatment
  • When you have an appetite, eat extra
  • Ask your dietitian for advice on the best eating plan during treatment and recovery
The Live Better With community recommends:
The Royal Marsden Cancer Cookbook, by Dr Clare Shaw


Nourish: The Cancer Care Cookbook, by Christine Bailey

Sunwarrior Protein Powder

Skin Issues

Soreness is commonly experienced where the skin has become exposed to radiation. The skin may become dry and itchy during radiotherapy treatment, and could become red or look darker than usual.

“I placed small pieces of silk cloth under my straps and waistband to prevent chafing on my sore skin.” – Beth, 42

“I found nursing bras or camisoles were much more comfortable on my skin than anything else I tried.” – Angela, 65

  • Follow skincare instructions from your treatment team, and let them know about any changes to the skin (e.g. rashes, cracks, blisters or peeling)
  • Let the dye outlines wear off gradually. Don’t scrub your skin to try to remove the marks
  • Use warm water rather than hot when showering and avoid hot-water bottles, heat packs, wheat bags, ice packs and razors on the treatment areas
  • Various creams can help burnt skin, especially those with a paraffin base (such as E45 or aqueous cream) – check with your healthcare team first
  • Avoid harsh and perfumed soaps or deodorants. Instead, try to use fragrance-free products which contain moisturisers such as aqueous cream or calendula cream
  • wear loose, soft clothing made from natural fibres to prevent rubbing on sore areas
  • Stay out of the sun and cover your skin before going out. the UV rays from the sun can cause further skin damage
  • Avoid chlorinating swimming [pools as it is very drying, and can make your skin reaction worse
  • Men having radiotherapy to the head and neck should use an electric razor instead of wet shaving to minimise further skin irritations

The Live Better With community has recommended:


Aqueous Cream

Coconut Oil

Weleda’s Calendula Soap

Aquabar Aqueous Cream Cleansing Bar

Faith in Nature’s Chamomile and Aloe Deodorant


Hair Loss

If you have hair in the area being treated (e.g. your scalp, face or body), you may lose some or all of it during radiotherapy. You may also lose hair on the opposite side of the area being treated, where the radiotherapy beam passes through the ‘exit site’. Your hair will usually grow back a few months after the treatment has finished. In general, you will only lose hair in the treated area.

“My radiotherapy was directly targeted at my head, which resulted in hair loss. Talk to your hairdresser about how to make your remaining hair look as good as possible. Mine recommended a new style and it felt great!” – Lizzie, 45

  • You may like to use a hat, scarf, turban, wig, toupee or nothing! Do whatever feels most comfortable and gives you the most confidence
  • If you do use headwear, try a hat (or wig liner) made from bamboo. Bamboo is highly breathable in hot weather but keeps you warm when the weather turns chilly. it is also three times more absorbent than cotton which helps with perspiration. Bamboo also has antibacterial properties
  • Try a natural strengthening shampoo and conditioner to help
  • Biotin, contain vitamin B7 which helps to keep hair strong and less likely to break
  • Make sure you protect areas where you have hair loss from sunburn, using chemical-free sunscreens
  • Don’t be surprised if the hair that grows back is different  – perhaps thinner, or curly where it was once straight

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Bamboo Hats

Bamboo Wig Liners

Biotin ShampooBiotin conditioner

Caribbean Blue Sunscreen



If you have radiotherapy close to your stomach area, you may feel nausea or feel like vomiting. this problem will usually get better when your treatment session is over. However, some people queasy for a few hours after external radiotherapy.

“At first I couldn’t think about eating without thinking about throwing up. Drinking ginger tea helped control the nausea.” – Simon, 67

  • Before treatment, have a bland snack, such as toast and apple juice
  • Sip on water and other fluids to prevent dehydration
  • acupuncture wristbands like Sea-Bands have been clinically proven to reduce radiotherapy-induced nausea. They are an effective low-cost alternative
  • Try nibbling on dry biscuits or crackers
  • Ginger is well-known for helping soothe your stomach when you are feeling sick. There are many products contain ginger to choose from, such as ginger tea, ginger beer, ginger chews or ginger biscuits

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Feeling Sick Kit

Gin-Gin Ginger Chews

Queasy Drops

Organic Peppermint Tea


Mouth Problems

Radiotherapy is often used to treat cancer in the mouth, throat, neck or upper chest region. Depending on the area treated, radiotherapy may affect your mouth and teeth. This can make eating and swallowing difficult, and affect your sense of taste.

“I made flavoured ice cubes to add to cold water including mint and lime, which helped with my changed sense of taste.” – Emily, 37

  • Keep your mouth moist by sucking on ice cubes and sipping cool drinks. Some of you suggested always carrying a water bottle and others have recommended pineapple chunks
  • You may have a persistently dry mouth and there are special toothpastes, mouthwashes and saliva replacements that can really help with this
  • If your mouth is sore, use a flavorless toothpaste so that the mint flavour doesn’t cause further irritation, and try a paste to help soothe mouth sores
  • If your sense of taste changes during radiotherapy, try different ways of preparing food and flavouring food (e.g. marinate foods or add spices)

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Biotene Moisturing Mouthwash

Salivix Sugar-Free Pastilles

Oranurse Unflavoured Toothpaste


Bamboo Cutlery


Discomfort When Swallowing

Radiotherapy to the chest can cause the tube through which food passes (the oesophagus) to become temporarily inflamed, which may cause temporary discomfort when swallowing.

  • If you are in discomfort, ask your doctor if he can prescribe medication to help ease your swallowing
  • Avoid hot or spicy food, and drinking acidic drinks or spirits during this time, because they can aggravate the problem
  • Soups are ideal – they are a tasty and convenient way of satisfying your appetite and getting your nutrients in one go
  • Thin, runny fluids can cause coughing and choking. Thickeners can combat this by preventing food from entering the windpipe, and reduce the risk of choking or needing to cough up food

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Thick and Easy Food Thickener

A Nutribullet


Difficulty Having Sex

Radiotherapy may cause you to temporarily lose interest in sex, particularly if you have other side effects, such as tiredness or nausea, or if you’re anxious about your condition or treatment. It can also cause soreness, dryness or dysfunction.

“I used a vaginal dilator which helped to stop my vagina from narrowing. It wasn’t at all as scary or uncomfortable as I thought it would be.” – Anna, 26

  • For women, radiotherapy to the vaginal area may cause your vagina to become sore and narrower. Your radiation therapist can tell you how to treat this using a vaginal dilator, which is a device inserted into your vagina to help prevent it narrowing
  • If you experience vaginal dryness, try using natural lubricants to replenish moisture
  • Men may experience erectile dysfunction. You should feel comfortable speaking to your GP or radiotherapist about this

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Yes! Lubricant

Replens Vaginal Moisturiser

Key-E Suppositories with Natural Vitamin E-24



Some people suffer from diarrhoea during treatment. This usually means that you need to pass more bowel motions in a day than is normal for you, and the stools you pass are looser than normal. Diarrhoea can be a temporary, mild side effects. For others, it can be severe and you will need to tell your doctor or nurse if it is getting worse so they can investigate the cause and prescribe anti-diarrhoea medicines.

“I put 2 one-litre bottles of water in the fridge to ensure I was drinking enough. It made it much easier to measure.” – Paul, 53

  • Drink lots of fluid (up to two litres a day) to replace lost fluid due to diarrhoea
  • Avoid alcohol and coffee as they are diuretics, meaning they cause more fluid to leave your body
  • Eat small, fr4equent meals that are made from light foods. There are some great cookbooks to help with ideas

The Live Better With community has recommended:

The Royal Marsden Cookbook by Dr Clare Shaw

Peppermint Tea

Cancer Fighting Kitchen, by Rebecca Katz


Stiff Joints and Muscles

Radiotherapy can cause your muscles to tighten up and your joints to become stiff in the area being treated. You may also experience uncomfortable swelling in the affected area.

  • Exercising regularly can help you to prevent stiffness. Your doctor or radiotherapist may refer you to a physiotherapist who can recommend suitable exercises. Make sure to relax your body after exercise
  • Try natural muscle rubs, which use ingredients such as ginger and cayenne pepper, to stimulate blood flow in the sore area

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Gentle Healing Yoga for Cancer Patients and Survivors

Exercise Bands

Badger Muscle Rub

Biofreeze Pain Relieving Gel


Flu-Like Symptoms

If you have palliative radiotherapy given in or two treatments sessions, you may experience flu-like symptoms. These include headaches, aching joints or muscles, and lack of energy (lethargy). If you also develop a temperature, it’s important to let your radiotherapy team know. Flu-like symptoms usually settle quickly.

  • Drink plenty of fluids, like water or flavoured water
  • Have lots of rest
  • If you develop a temperature, it’s important to let your radiotherapy team know

The Live Better With community has recommended:

Gel Eye Mask

Ear Plugs

Breville Food Blender



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