Self-Help During Radiation Treatment

Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: October 24, 2006

Talking with Your Radiation Therapy Team

Some people with cancer want get deep into every aspect about their disease and their treatment. Others choose to concern themselves with only general information. The choice is yours, but there are a few questions that every person getting radiation therapy should ask. These include:

  • Why do I need radiation therapy?

  • What are the benefits of radiation therapy?

  • What are the risks of radiation therapy?

  • What dose will I be getting?

  • How will the treatment be given?

  • Where will I get my treatments?

  • How long will my treatments last?

  • What are the possible side effects?

  • Are there any side effects that I should report right away?

  • Are there any other possible treatment methods for my type of cancer?

This list is just a start. You always should feel free to ask your doctor, nurse, and therapist as many questions as you want. If you don't understand their answers, keep asking until you do. Remember, when it comes to cancer and cancer treatment there is no such thing as a "dumb" question. You may find it helpful to draw up a list of questions before your appointment. Some people even keep a "running list" and jot down each new question as it occurs to them.

You may want to take notes during your appointment. Don't feel shy about asking your doctor to slow down when you need more time to write. There may be teaching sheets on your condition. Ask the nurse if there is any information already written down for you. Many times the staff gets ideas of what to include in teaching information by what questions the patients ask during treatment. So, don't be afraid to ask questions. You will feel better when you understand your treatment and you may help the next patient to come after you! Another way to help you remember is to bring a friend or family member to sit with you while you talk to your doctor. This person can help you be aware of what your doctor says during your visit and help refresh your memory afterward.

How Radiation Therapy Effects Your Emotions

Radiation therapy can bring huge changes to your life. It can affect overall health, disrupt day-to-day schedules, and put a strain on your personal life. Many people feel fearful, worried, angry, or depressed at some point during their radiation therapy.

These emotions are normal and understandable, but they also can be disturbing. Fortunately, there are ways to cope with these emotional "side effects," just as there are ways to cope with the physical side effects of radiation therapy.

How Can I Get the Support I Need?

There are many sources of support you can draw on. Here are some of the most important:

  • Doctors and nurses. If you have questions or worries about your cancer treatment, talk with members of your health care team.

  • Counseling professionals. There are many kinds of counselors who can help you express, understand, and cope with the emotions cancer treatment can cause. Depending on your preferences and needs, you might want to talk with a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, sex therapist, or member of the clergy.

  • Friends and family members. Talking with friends or family members can help you feel a lot better. Often, they can comfort and reassure you in ways that no one else can. You may find, though, that you'll need to help them help you. At a time when you might expect that others will rush to your aid, you may have to make the first move.

  • Other patients. Many people find it helpful to speak to other people in their situation. Strike up a conversation with another person in the waiting area. You may be surprised to find how similar your thoughts are. It helps some people to feel that they are not alone.

    Many people do not understand cancer, and they may pull away from you because they're afraid of your illness. Others may worry that they will offend you by saying "the wrong thing."

    You can help ease these fears by being open. Talk with others about your illness, your treatment, your needs, and your feelings. This way, you can correct mistaken ideas about cancer. You can also let people know that there's no single "right" thing to say, so long as their caring comes through loud and clear. Once people know they can talk with you honestly, they may be more willing and able to open up and lend their support.

    The National Cancer Institute's booklet "Taking Time" offers useful advice to help cancer patients and their families and friends communicate with one another.

  • Support groups. Support groups are made up of people who are going through the same kinds of experiences as you. Many people with cancer find they can share thoughts and feelings with group members that they don't feel comfortable sharing with anyone else. Support groups also can serve as an important source of practical information about living with cancer.

  • Support can also be found in one-to-one programs that put you in touch with another person very similar to you in terms of age, sex, type of cancer, and so forth. In some programs, this person comes to visit you. In others, a "hotline" puts you in touch with someone you can talk with on the telephone.

Sources for information about support programs include your hospital's social work department, the local office of your American Cancer Society, and the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service.

How Can I Make My Daily Life Easier?

Here are some tips to help you while you are getting radiation therapy:

  • Try to keep your treatment goals in mind. This will help you keep a positive attitude on days when the going gets rough.

  • Remember that eating well is very important. Your body needs food to rebuild tissues and regain strength.

  • Take care of yourself. Some days you will want to stay at home and have a "pajama day". This can be very therapeutic. However, as much as you can, try to keep your daily personal care and skin grooming routine intact. If you have lost your hair and wear a wig, make sure you know how to care for your wig. If you need help, ask for it.

  • Learn as much as you want to know about your disease and its treatment. This can lessen your fear of the unknown and increase your feeling of control.

  • Keep a journal or diary while you're in treatment. This can help you understand the feelings you have as you go through treatment, and remember questions you need to ask your doctor or nurse.

    You also can use your journal to record the steps you take to cope with side effects, and how well those steps work. That way, you'll know which methods worked best for you in case you have the same side effects again.

  • Set realistic goals and don't be too hard on yourself. You may not have as much energy as usual, so try to get as much rest as you can, let the "small stuff" slide, and only do the things that are most important to you.

  • Try new hobbies and learn new skills. Exercise if you can. Using your body can make you feel better about yourself, help you get rid of tension or anger, and build your appetite. Ask your doctor or nurse about a safe and practical exercise program.


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