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Coping with Treatment

Taking Care of Yourself  

It is important that you take especially good care of yourself while undergoing treatment. Listen to your body. If you have questions about diet, sexual activity, medications, disability or anything else, talk them over with your physician.

REMEMBER:  Most patients receiving radiation therapy continue to do whatever they did before. They go to work or school and take care of their families. However, you will need more rest and should maintain healthy eating habits.

About Radiation Therapy

Potential Side Effects

Most patients experience some side effects during radiation therapy. Your physician will discuss with you the expected reactions of treatment. If you are worried about possible side effects or are having a symptom you feel may be related to your treatment, discuss this with your physician or nurse.  

Some patients who are treated in the neck area feel a sensation like a lump in the throat. Patients treated to the chest may have a cough, increased bronchial secretions and some difficulty swallowing. This will clear a few weeks after you finish your course of treatment.

Patients receiving radiation to the stomach or abdomen areas may have some diarrhea and/or nausea. Treatment to the pelvis may cause symptoms of irritation to the bladder and the rectum, loose stools and diarrhea. The physician can prescribe a special diet or medication to reduce this. It is not unusual to feel tired during the course of radiation therapy. Many patients find it helpful to take an afternoon nap and to get an extra hour or so of sleep each night. Your body is your best guide.

Most patients will not lose their hair. If the area receiving radiation has hair, it may be lost temporarily.

Coping with Fatigue

Sexuality and Cancer

Social Needs

The social worker can help you solve practical problems such as lodging or transportation, or link you with community services such as the American Cancer Society or the Peregrine Society.  During periods of illness, patients and their families have special concerns.  Living with cancer is often a reason for feeling anxious or depressed.  Sometimes, talking about these feelings can help you find new ways to cope.

Social workers address problems that delay or interfere with obtaining radiation oncology treatments:

  • Insurance
  • Lodging
  • Transportation

The Radiation Oncology Department offers the services of a social worker to provide individual, marital or family counseling when cancer causes depression, anxiety or stress.  Social Work is an integral part of the services provided by your healthcare team and can be a vital link to:

  • In-home community services
  • Nursing home placement
  • Rehabilitation placement
  • Hospice care
  • Housing 
  • Finances

Social work facilitate groups that offer:

  • Education and information
  • Support from others who know and understand
  • Ways to cope effectively with your illness

To reach the Radiation Oncology social worker:  Contact Us

Skin Care

The following guidelines will help protect your skin during radiation therapy:

  • If your skin is marked with a dye, do not wash the marks off. They are necessary for accurate treatment from one visit to the next. 
  • Keep the skin dry in the area being treated.
  • You may rinse the treatment area with plain water. Using a soft cloth, pat dry.
  • Do not use soap in the treatment area.
  • Do not massage or rub the treated area vigorously.
  • Do not apply ointments, creams, lotions, talcum powders, alcohol, deodorants, anti-perspirants, perfumes, make-up or after-shave lotions in the treatment area unless prescribed by your physician. These products may intensify a skin reaction.
  • Mild shampoos may be used.
  • You may use aquaphor, a soothing gel.  Ask your doctor if it must be cleaned off before treatment.)
  • Do not apply hot packs, heating pads, water bottles, saunas or sun lamps to the skin being treated.
  • Avoid cold. Do not expose the skin to ice bags or air conditioning vents.
  • Avoid exposing the treatment area to direct sunshine.
  • Do not put any dressings or tape of any kind on the treatment area unless prescribed by your doctor in the Radiation Oncology Department.
  • If shaving is necessary in the treatment area, use only an electric razor with no skin preparation.  
  • Prevent rubbing of clothes or dressings on the skin as much as possible.  If you have an open sore in your treatment area, your nurse will help you cover it with a dressing for protection. Do not use adhesive tape. Paper tape is recommended. Avoid harsh fabrics in the treatment area. Wear clothing with high cotton content; it allows the skin to breathe. If you are receiving radiation in the pelvic area, do not wear pantyhose.
  • Use gentle detergents to wash clothing that come in contact with the treatment area. 
  • After the entire treatment is finished, a mild hand cream containing lanolin or 100 percent pure aloe vera gel may be used to relieve dryness and irritation. Do not use scented or medicated lotions. Cornstarch will relieve itching. Skin feel will begin to improve about two weeks after the final treatment.
  • Your doctor will advise you about skin care and, if necessary, will prescribe special ointments and creams or other medications.

Mouth Care


The importance of maintaining good nutrition is a vital part of medical care for individuals with cancer.  Nutrients are the basic ingredients that cells, tissues and organs in the body require to reproduce, maintain and repair themselves.  The body requires nutrients - protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals and water on a regular basis and in proper amounts to function effectively.  Your physician or nurse may recommend that you meet with a dietitian while you are receiving radiation therapy or before you start your treatment.

Dietitians on staff at the Department of Radiation Oncology are registered members of the American Dietetic Association and licensed in the state of Missouri.  They specialize in the medical nutrition therapy for patients diagnosed with cancer.  A registered dietitian can assist you with the following:

  • General nutrition counseling
  • Assessment of individual nutritional needs
  • Suggestions for coping with side effects of cancer treatment
  • Use of nutritional supplements
  • Prevention of weight loss
  • Healthy weight management
  • Information on the role of diet and nutrition in reducing cancer risk

If you would like to meet with a dietitian, please notify your physician, nurse, or therapist Contact Us.


If you exercised routinely before your radiation therapy began you may try to continue. You are the best judge of what you feel like doing. Don't hesitate to ask the physicians or nurses if you have questions

Smoking Cessation

Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University Medical Center Radiation Oncology Department is completely opposed to smoking. Patients receiving head and neck radiation will find cigarette smoke especially irritating. Talk to the physician or nurse if you are having trouble giving up cigarettes. For help quitting, the Cancer Information Center offers "Take Control of Your Life," a six-session behavior modification program offered four times a year. For information, Contact Us  or stop by the Cancer Information Center, BJH north, first floor.  In consideration of other patients, smoking is not allowed in the Radiation Oncology Department.