Radiation therapy is used against many cancers to help shrink tumors or to help reduce the risk that they will return. As with all medical interventions, long-term side effects occur. According to the Mayo Clinic, side effects can persist months or years after active treatment has ended. Late effects can occur years after treatment, as well, and these can also be long term.
The long-term side effects of radiation first became noticeable in atomic bomb survivors, individuals who worked with radiation as part of their job and patients who had received prior radiation, according to the website cancer.org. It was found that young women who received treatment Hodgkin's lymphoma decades ago later developed breast cancer as a side effect of chest radiation used in the past. Though this treatment is no longer in practice, it has highlighted the importance of research and focus on this topic.
Types of Long-Term Side Effects
Although radiation helps kill cancer cells, it also damages healthy cells. Some of these long-term effects depend on where the radiation is targeted and how much is given. If radiation is given to the chest, the heart or lungs could be affected later, and people who have radiation to their pelvic or abdominal area sometimes have sexual, bladder or bowel problems. Fatigue and changes in skin are common long-term side effects, according to the Mayo Clinic. Skin might be more sensitive, or turn reddish for a period of time.
Although long-term effects appear and continue for different amounts of time with each individual, there have been approximate time frames for certain long-term effects. Some types of leukemia are by-products of radiation therapy, and the American Cancer Society estimates that the risk for these leukemias is at its highest five to nine years after the radiation treatment, and then slowly goes down. Other kinds of cancers that have been related to radiation tend to occur more than 10 years after treatment.
Radiation treatment has improved in recent decades, and more targeted use of radiation is practiced, along with lower doses of radiation. This will ideally translate into less damage to healthy cells, and a lower risk of secondary cancers and long-term side effects.
While these are possible long-term side effects of radiation, not everyone will experience them. Overall, the risk of second cancers and radiation-related leukemias is low, and if you have concerns, talk to your doctor. Together, you will be able to look at the benefits and risks and decide whether you want radiation therapy as part of your treatment. If you have questions about possible side effects, ask your doctor before treatment starts whether there is anything you should be aware of.