Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment technique. Most of its long-term side effects are incurable and do not surface until long after therapy is done. Factors such as dose, length of treatment, and type of therapy or cancer, directly influence the probability of long-term adverse reactions developing. The exact symptoms a patient experiences vary based on those factors as well.
Using radiation to treat tumors in the head could result in a decrease or loss of certain brain functions. Serious long-term side effects include incontinence, memory loss, movement struggles and personality changes. Less dramatic possibilities include difficulty solving mathematical equations and trouble thinking. According to the National Cancer Institute, radiation therapy to the brain can cause problems months or years after treatment ends.
Women receiving treatment to the abdomen risk permanent infertility and early menopause if both ovaries collect radiation exposure. Men often lose the ability to create sperm after receiving radiation to the testicles, also resulting in infertility. However, if the cancer is not in the testicles, a "clam shell" device could shield them, and protect his fertility. In comparison, if only one of a woman's ovaries endures treatment, her fertility may remain intact as well. Complications during pregnancy could result due to scarring and fibrosis if a woman's uterus gathers radiation.
By crippling the nerves or arteries that lead to the penis, achieving or maintaining an erection can become impossible for men. Chances of impotence increase with higher doses of radiation and larger areas of treatment. Typically, this repercussion begins to occur about one year or more after radiation therapy ends. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 in 3 men who get radiation in the pelvic area will notice a change in his ability to have erections.
In the area where treatment occurred, such as the shoulders, hips or jaw, some patients experience limited joint mobility or complete loss of motion. Induced by radiation, this painful long-term side effect is the result of scar tissue and weakness. These symptoms may appear months or years following completion of treatment. Exercise may help alleviate some pain while strengthening the body and resulting in increased mobility.
When radiation impairs lymph nodes, lymphedema could result. Patients inflicted with this condition will have a build up of lymph fluids causing swelling in a leg or arm, possibly accompanied by pain or weakness in the limb. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may affect just one arm or leg, but sometimes, lymphedema can involve both arms or both legs. Prevention and management of this incurable side effect is feasible with doctor recommended exercises.
Even though radiation proves to destroy cancerous cells, exposure to it also poses a risk of causing cancer to form. In as little as 5 years after receiving therapy, it is capable of creating leukemia. Other cancers could take as long as 15 years to develop. Overall, the likeliness of radiation therapy generating a new cancer is slim. Nonetheless, the potential does exist.
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