Long-term Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy currently plays a major role in the treatment protocols of many subtypes of lymphoma, and it is generally used in high doses as pre-treatment in stem cell transplantations.

Radiation therapy was and remains a major breakthrough in cancer treatment in general, but doctors and researchers are quick to caution that there are side effects from this therapy which should not be taken lightly.

Radiation and Cell Damage

Radiation does tremendous damage to our cells. That's good news if referring to tumors, but if radiation is directed at a tumor in the chest, it is also exposing the patient's internal organs in that region to radiation – and doing potential damage to the organs.

Radiation to the Head and Neck

Radiation to the head and neck has the potential to create the following long-term side effects (this is an incomplete list; speak to your doctor about other risks):

  • Cataracts
  • Cavities
  • Tooth decay
  • Cognitive and memory problems
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Secondary cancers (in other words, the radiation can cause new cancers down the road)

Radiation to the Chest

Radiation to the chest area is not uncommon for breast cancer, and is occasionally used in Hodgkin's lymphoma and some B-cell lymphomas where there is a bulky mass in the chest region. Radiation to this area has the potential to create the following long-term side effects (this is an incomplete list; speak to your doctor about other risks):

  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • For women, breast skin may be darker and skin pores could be larger. Breast skin might be thicker and less sensitive. Breast size can sometimes change; larger from fluid build-up or smaller from scar tissue. However, the American Cancer Society says that following radiation, "Many women have little or no [breast] change."
  • Secondary cancers
  • Osteoporosis

Radiation to the Stomach, Abdomen or Pelvis

Radiation to the abdomen has the potential to create the following long-term side effects (this is an incomplete list; speak to your doctor about other risks):

  • Intestinal problems
  • Infertility in both men and women
  • Bladder problems
  • Secondary cancers
  • Osteoporosis

Advances in radiation therapy are making some of these long-term potential side effects less and less likely because the field of radiation is getting more and more precise, exposing less and less healthy tissue to the damaging effects of radiotherapy.

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