Side Effects

Overview of the side effects from radiation

Radiation therapy mostly only causes side effects in the part of the body that is being treated.  For this reason, it won’t make you lose your hair, and you won’t feel sick or nauseous.  You may sometimes get fatigue but most people will have enough energy to do all their normal activities.

This picture shows the Prostate, Bladder, Rectum, and Urethra.  The black circle is the area that is being radiated.  You can see that the radiation will hit all those organs to some extent.  In addition, the nerves that control the erections travel over the prostate gland, and these are also radiated.

Side effects can occur in the short term (during radiation therapy), or in the long term (months – years following radiation therapy).  Inflammation causes short term side effects, and scarring causes long term side effects.

Short term side effects

Radiation therapy will cause inflammation in the prostate, bladder, rectum, and urethra.  This inflammation will *not* start on the first day of radiation.  It will gradually build up over the first few weeks.  You may not even notice any side effects until you are into your third or fourth week of radiation.  Some people are more sensitive and may notice changes even in the first week.  There are several remedies to help treat short time side effects, including anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, and medications that relax the irritated prostate or bladder.

Once the radiation therapy is all completed, the inflammation will subside and the side effects will gradually go away over 1 – 2 months.  Most patients, but not all, feel like they are back to normal by 6 weeks to 3 months following the end of radiation.

Fatigue is one of the few whole body side effect.  The inflammation in the prostate gland probably causes the fatigue, and once this clears up the fatigue should improve.  Men who are on hormone therapy will get a lot more fatigue.

Long term side effects

Once the inflammation is all healed, there can be some scarring that occurs.  This is one way in which the body heals inflammation.  Scarring can cause long term side effects.  An example would be some scarring of the blood vessels and nerves that control the erections, which would result in erectile dysfunction (ED).

Long term side effects are harder to treat, because it is not easy to treat scar tissue.  Treatments like hyperbaric oxygen therapy and laser therapy may be required.  As well, long term side effects can be long lasting or permanent.

Fortunately, the most common urinary and rectal side effects with prostate radiation are short term side effects.  The only common long term side effect is weakening of the erections.  Less common long term side effects are bleeding from the rectum and incontinence (loss of urine control).

Q) Will I feel sick while I’m on radiation?

A) No.  The side effects are mostly in the prostate, rectum, and bladder area.

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Q) I have heard that radiation can burn you up.  Will I get burns on my skin?

A) No.  There is usually no skin reaction from prostate radiation.  Occasionally there can be a few pinkish patches that go away in a few weeks.

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Q) Will I be able to work?  Will I be able to drive?  Will I be able to play golf?

A) Yes, yes, yes!

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