Radiation therapy to the chest

Radiation therapy to the chest

Knowing what to expect during and after treatment can help you prepare and reduce any anxiety that you may be feeling. The following information has been put together to help you understand your radiation therapy treatment, and we hope to reduce any concerns you have. It does not replace discussion with your doctor, or the advice of your care team specific to your needs.

What are the possible short-term side effects?

Radiation therapy may cause side effects. Everyone different, and you’re unlikely to experience all of the side effects listed.

We encourage you to talk to us about any side effects that worry you. We are here to help you find ways to manage any side effects that you experience.

Short-term side effects may include:

Skin reaction

Two to three weeks after treatment starts, your skin may become red, itchy or irritated. This reaction can last the remainder of your treatment, and usually returns to normal four to six weeks after treatment finishes.

Sometimes the reaction can become more intense towards the end of treatment, and increase for up to two weeks after treatment finishes. Your nurse will show you how to care for your skin and provide support. Tell your nurse if you are experiencing any skin changes.


It is common to have a cough associated with a lung tumour itself, or related to an infection of the lungs. It is also possible to develop a cough as a side effect of radiation therapy to the chest. Depending on the cause, your doctor may prescribe a cough suppressant, humidified air or other medication to help manage a cough.

Difficulty swallowing

Difficulty swallowing is a common reaction when the oesophagus is in the treatment area. As a result of inflammation of the oesophagus, this can feel painful when swallowing or produce a sensation like a lump in the throat. If you experience discomfort or notice any changes, let your care team know as soon as possible. Early measures can control and relieve these symptoms. Our nursing team will monitor your weight, and if required, you may be referred to a dietitian.


You may feel tired or lack energy for daily activities during your treatment. This is a common reaction to radiation therapy and each person is usually affected to varying degrees. Finding a balance between rest and activity will help you manage.

Shortness of breath

Radiation therapy to the chest area may cause some inflammation of your lungs. This inflammation may cause you to become short of breath. Please report any breathing changes to your nursing team.

Pain and discomfort

We will provide you with some information to help control any pain and discomfort. If required, your doctor will also prescribe pain relief to help control any pain. It is important that you follow the pain control instructions carefully, which may include pre-treatment analgesia, to ensure pain is managed effectively and your comfort is maintained.

Pain flare

Radiation therapy to the bone areas can cause a temporary increase in pain in the area being treated. It can occur after one dose of radiation and it usually lasts from 12 to 36 hours. Let us know as soon as possible if you experience a pain flare as we can help to control this with the use of additional breakthrough analgesia. If required, your doctor will prescribe further pain relief.

Your radiation oncologist will talk to you about any possible long-term side effects related to your treatment.

How can I manage my skin during treatment?

Moisturise twice a day

Your care team will recommend a cream to help manage any skin changes. At the start of your treatment, apply cream to the area being treated [front and back] twice a day. As treatment progresses, you may need to apply the cream three to four times per day. Do not apply any creams within one hour of treatment. Let your nursing team know if you continue to experience skin changes as they can let you know if a different cream is required.

Wear loose fitting clothing

Avoid wearing tight fitting clothing that could potentially rub or irritate the skin. You may find singlets, cotton ‘crop-tops’ or old loose fitting bras more comfortable. Avoid underwire or lace bras. Your nurses can advise ways to keep high risk areas dry and reduce friction or rubbing.

Avoid excessive temperatures

Avoid exposure of the treatment area to excessive temperatures, such as direct sunlight, heat packs, ice packs, electric blankets, saunas or hot spas.

Wash with warm water and pat dry

You may wash the skin that is being treated with warm water and a mild non-perfumed soap. Pat the skin dry – do not rub.


Prescriptions and vitamins

You should continue to take any prescribed medications. Please inform your nurse if you are taking vitamins, antioxidants or herbal supplements, or if you start any new medications during your treatment.

If you have any questions regarding your medications, please discuss this with your radiation oncologist or nurse.

Frequently asked questions

How will radiation therapy affect my day to day life?

You may continue your usual work and daily activities, but you may need to rest more than usual due to tiredness or fatigue during treatment. Unless otherwise advised, you can eat and drink normally. Alcohol consumption in moderation is permitted, and you can continue to take any prescribed medications.

Can I wash the marks off my skin?

We ask that you don’t deliberately wash them off as this may further irritate your skin. Your radiation therapists will re-apply them each day as required.

What happens after my treatment is finished?

Reviews and follow up appointments will be discussed and organised by your care team prior to completing treatment.

When should side effects settle?

Radiation therapy treatment keeps working even after you have stopped coming in for regular treatment. This means symptoms may get a little worse before they get better. Generally, side effects will settle within four to six weeks of finishing your treatment.

Will radiation make me radioactive?

Radiation therapy does not make you radioactive and it is safe to be around others, including children and pregnant women during and after your treatment. There is no restriction on physical contact with others.

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