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How to Take Care of Yourself After Radiation

How to Take Care of Yourself After Radiation

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


A course of radiation treatment comes with plenty of challenges, and it’s important to care for yourself thoughtfully during a treatment cycle, which can last up to six weeks. Quality aftercare starts with foresight. To start planning for your needs, first you’ll need to understand exactly what your course of treatment will look like, in terms of procedures, schedule, and travel logistics. 
 
These details will depend on whether you are receiving external or internal radiation, your treatment site, and other specifics of your personal treatment plan. To get clear, make a list of questions for your oncology team. Ask how often you’ll be coming in for treatment, how long each appointment will take (both the actual treatment time, and “door-to-door” time that includes prep, changing, and recovery), and how many days or weeks your treatment will take. Map your commute to the hospital or clinic where you’ll be getting treatment and ask about parking. (Is it on site? If not, where is it? How much does it cost? Does the treatment center validate? These costs can add up over weeks-long treatment cycles, so you’ll want to plan ahead.)
 
Once you have answers to these questions, you’ll have a clearer sense of what your life will look like during your course of treatment, and you’ll be ready to tailor your aftercare plan to your specific needs. 

Life planning

Radiation is super effective, but it does come with side effects, like skin dryness and soreness (and sometimes burns), fatigue, localized hair loss, and problems with appetite and digestion. Because radiation accumulates in your body, side effects are also cumulative, which means you may feel well enough to go to work and keep your normal schedule up during the first few days or weeks of your treatment cycle, and then get walloped with exhaustion and discomfort as treatment continues. 
 
The severity of timing of side effects can be unpredictable, so mental health experts recommend looking into taking time off work through the Family and Medical Leave Act, which protects your employment and health insurance for up to twelve weeks if you’re eligible. Clearing the rest of your schedule of obligations (as you’re able to) is another wise move—treatment can be emotionally taxing, and having a bunch of social or professional commitments can contribute to a feeling of overwhelm. This is a great time to ask for help from your network of friends and family, particularly if you have kids or other family responsibilities.

Social support

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Keeping in close touch with friends and loved ones is super important during this time—especially if you’re traveling out of town for treatment or if you’ve taken leave from work and bowed out of other commitments. Consider asking friends or family to join you for a low-impact virtual get-together, like a weekly Zoom call or a group chat, so that you can stay connected (and so that others can do the work of reaching out in case you feel low or isolative) without the stress of obligations.

Body care

About 85% of people receiving radiation will experience skin reactions, which can range in severity from sensitivity and itching to burn-like sores and ulcers. These side effects happen because radiation causes damage to skin cells while it is working its tumor-shrinking magic, and inflammatory cells rush in to your treatment site as radiation accumulates in your body. That’s a lot of science to say that, unfortunately, you’ll likely have to deal with skin issues, and they may get worse before they get better. 
 
To take control of this situation, you’ll want to gather some products, like specialized creams, some breathable clothing, and linens that won’t irritate your skin while you’re snoozing. (Check out our post-radiation prep article for more tips and product recs.) Think about everything that touches your skin, from your couch to the driver’s seat in your car, your laundry detergent to deodorant, and sub unscented, sensitive-skin products anywhere you can.

Mind care

Having a plan for your mental well being is every bit as important as body care. Studies show that mindfulness practices like meditation and breathwork can be effective at managing pain, depression, stress, and anxiety, by lowering stress hormones and releasing endorphins (which are house-made painkillers that your body serves up under the right conditions).
 
If you’re new to mindfulness, there are a number of great apps like Calm and Insight Timer that can help guide you through the beginning of your meditation journey. In addition to after your treatments, ask your team if they’re okay with you listening to meditations on headphones during your treatments—tuning into a soothing practice can bring a bit of calm to the experience. If that isn’t in the cards at your center, listening to a guided mediation in your (parked!) car on your way into treatment is a great alternative.

Boredom solutions

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If you’re taking time off of work or heading out of town for treatment, the boredom can get very real, very fast. Because your actual treatment time is quick with radiation, most of your treatment cycle will be spent hanging out waiting for your next treatment. Keeping yourself entertained is of vital importance, so think about all different kinds of media and set yourself up with an array of options. Consider movies, TV shows, books, music, podcasts, games (online and old school), and low-energy-investment projects (think coloring books, not repainting your bathroom), and remember that even though you might feel ready to tackle obscure French cinema on week one of treatment, you might be more into Hollywood blockbusters by the time fatigue hits you at the halfway point, so plan for both.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.