Radiation therapy has been in use for over 100 years. High doses of radiation kill cells or keep them from growing and dividing. Since cancer cells grow at a faster rate than do normal cells, radiation therapy can be very effective. Normal cells are also destroyed by radiation which is why providers monitor the intensity carefully. About half of all people who are diagnosed with cancer undergo radiation.
"Radiation Therapy" goes by different names:
- x-ray therapy
- cobalt therapy
- electron beam therapy
Side Effects. Most side effects from radiation therapy (e.g., itching, skin reddening and skin burn) go away after a few weeks. Some side effects require immediate response from the provider, such as coughing, fever, or unusual pain. The provider takes multiple blood tests from the patient to monitor the white blood cell and platelet counts which drop during radiation treatment. When side effects become too severe, radiation is stopped and the patient must have some time to recover and heal before continuing the treatment. Side effects from radiation sometimes do not occur for several weeks. When they do occur, make certain that the provider knows about all of the side effects. DO NOT WORRY, but do talk with both the patient and the provider about the side effects. Talk with the provider before using any treatment, including lotions for the sunburned or dry skin. Lotions that normally respond to such conditions very well, such as aloe lotions, actually can irritate irradiation "burn" or dry skin.
- Fatigue (e.g., lethargy); Feeling very weak or tired
- Dry, itchy skin; sunburned
- Loss of appetite
- Soreness and swelling
How You Can Help the Cancer Patient Before the Radiation Therapy Begins
- Radiation will interfere with the healing from the surgery. The cancer patient must wait until her surgery has healed before beginning the radiation therapy.
- Work with a healer or story teller to help the patient prepare for how she will deal with uncomfortable feelings during the therapy. For example, the patient may be strapped down to help her stay in one position so that the radiation goes where it is supposed to go, and not affect other parts of the body. Then the machine may move to focus on different angle of the tumor (or place where the tumor was removed). The sound and the closeness of the equipment frightens some patients. Help the patient prepare for how she can deal with hearing the sounds, or the sudden movement of the equipment.
I got scared when the big machine came down on me cause I never experienced nothing like that in my life, so I got scared so I started praying in my own prayers. I asked the machine, whatever you are, believe and get me well. That’s what I said to the machine, get me well. Mary Lou Calabaza (Santo Domingo Pueblo)
- One healer prepared special prayers for the patient to say while she was going through the radiation therapy. She brought her token bag with her into the radiation treatment room so that she could hold the bag with the special "gifts" the healer prepared for her while she said her personalized prayers.
- You can go with the patient when she is fitted for a cast or any other preparation to help her stay in one position. There are different techniques that are used to help her stay in a single position.
- The radiation oncologist will mark the area on her skin where the radiation is to be directed. They will use India ink or another relatively permanent marker. She needs to avoid scrubbing off the mark. Once the mark is made, some women have had traditional healers do ceremonies over the marked area. Nothing should be placed directly on the marked area prior to or during treatment (such as a poultice)
Family members are sometimes concerned that the patient is radioactive following radiation therapy. Talk with the provider about your feelings and your concerns. If very high dosages of radiation are used, the provider may recommend that the woman not hold infants or very small children for a short period of time. For most patients, the dosage is focused on a local area and such concerns do not exist.
How You can Help the Cancer Patient During the Radiation Therapy
- Radiation is given in different ways. If the patient has an implant, you may only need to help her get to and from her appointments and to help her deal with side effects, if any.
- If she is receiving radiation at the health care facility, you cannot be in the same room with the cancer patient while the treatment is being done (because the providers do not want you to be exposed to unnecessary radiation).
- Some radiation rooms have speakers or intercoms to outside waiting areas. If an intercom system or something similar exists, you can talk with the patient as long as talking does not result in her moving her body.
- Some patients have severe reactions to radiation which results in having to take additional medical prescriptive drugs, like cortisone (e.g., Prednisone). You can help by picking up the medications and making certain that any and all medications are taken as directed by the provider.
How You can Help the Cancer Patient After the Radiation Therapy
- Most patients do not feel too badly after the first few treatments and she may require little assistance initially (e.g., help walking to the car). However, she can suddenly begin to experience side effects. The most common are feeling very weak and tired, and experiencing red, tender dry skin on the area where the radiation is being focused. Be prepared to help her when she feels tired. See the Section on "How to Help the Patient When she is Feeling Weak." For the skin problems, ask the provider for a lotion. They are likely to provide a sulfa cream.
- The patients who are going through radiation therapy are usually extra sensitive to sunlight and heat. They are likely to have no tolerance to heat.
- If the vehicle you use to transport the patient to and from the radiation therapy is not air conditioned, borrow a car or truck that is.
- If the patient must walk in the sunshine for daily activities (such as walking to the mail box to pick up mail, or to feed and water animals), have other members of the family help with these duties, or provide an umbrella or a wrap to help shield her from the heat of the sun.