Radiation for breast cancer is painless, but side effects vary from person to person—you may experience none or several. Regardless, most are temporary, controllable and disappear after your treatment has ended. Here are a few of the more common side effects of radiation and how to handle them.
Fatigue: You’ll feel like you don’t have any energy and are tired all the time.
What you can do: Try exercise; tell your doctor about how much you can handle. Eat a healthy and balanced diet. Plan activities around the times you tend to have the most energy.
Skin problems: Skin may be red, pink, sunburned or tanned; swollen or blistered; or dry, flaky, peeling or itchy.
What you can do: Avoid exposing treated skin to the sun. If you’re at a beach or pool, wear a cover up when not in the water, a bathing suit with a high neckline, and avoid chlorine, which can be drying. In the shower, to prevent irritation, try not to let water fall directly on your breast, use warm and not hot water, and clean with fragrance-free soaps.
Armpit discomfort: If you had surgery, some nerves may have been cut or moved, making the skin feel numb, tender and swollen. Radiation may irritate the area further, making the armpit sore.
What you can do: Avoid strong soaps and deodorants. Consider not shaving your underarm during treatment. Wear loose-fitting shirts so your arm is away from your body, preventing skin-on-skin contact.
Chest pain: During and after radiation, you may feel shooting pains in your chest from swollen and irritated nerves.
What you can do: Tell your healthcare provider; they may be able to give you medication to ease the pain. Also ask about complementary treatment like acupuncture or massage.
Breast issues: During and just after radiation, breasts may feel sore or tender. Over the long term, you may notice firmness, swelling or shrinkage, or aches and pains.
What you can do: Ask if it’s safe for you to take mild pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
Lower white blood cell count: Radiation can interfere with the production of these powerful infection fighters.
What you can do: Avoid large crowds and people who are sick; germs can spread easily from coughing and sneezing. Tell your healthcare provider if you do get ill; they may prescribe medication to increase your white blood cell production.