How radiotherapy can impact your nutritional needs

Nutrition impacts of radiotherapy

The nutritional side effects of radiotherapy depend on the area being treated, the dose and the duration of treatment.  This tip sheet oulines how radiotherapy helps in treat cancer and how you can manage the side-effects that may affect your nutritional or dietary intake needs.

What is radiotherapy

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, uses directed rays of radiation to destroy the DNA of cancer cells, which prevents them from growing and multiplying. Although it is targeted at the cancer cells it may also hit healthy cells, and this can contribute to side effects. The therapy is delivered in small consecutive doses, usually from somewhere between two to ten weeks, and is commonly used to treat cancers of the breast, head, neck, brain and colon. It is also often used in combination with other types of treatment such as chemotherapy (chemoradiation) and surgery.

Nutritional side effects of radiotherapy

The nutritional side effects of radiotherapy depend on the area being treated, the dose and the duration of treatment. They also depend on whether the therapy is used in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy. Typically, side effects present at around two to three weeks into treatment and can last around two to six weeks after treatment has finished. The main side effects which can impact on nutritional health are those which affect the mouth region, including mouth ulcers and saliva and taste changes. The other region prone to side effects is in the gastrointestinal tract.

Common nutritional side effects of radiotherapy

Area of treatment Possible side effects affecting nutrition
Brain, spinal cord Nausea, vomiting, loss or increase in appetite
Head and neck (tongue, larynx (voice box), tonsils, salivary glands, nose area, oesophagus or throat or lung Sore mouth and throat, difficulties or pain with swallowing, taste and smell changes, thick or sticky saliva, loss of appetite, fatigue
Breast Sore throat, difficulties swallowing, heartburn or reflux, fatigue and loss of appetite
Stomach, large of small bowel, pelvic region, cervix, uterus or ovaries, rectum, pancreas, prostate Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, gas, bloating, lactose intolerance, loss of appetite, digestion difficulties, changes in bladder function, fatigue


Way to try to support your nutrition health during radiotherapy

A cancer specialist dietitian works alongside your medical team to check if your overall dietary intakes are enough to meet your needs, the needs of the treatments and to treat nutrition problems such as loss of appetite, weight loss (muscle), weight or shape changes (due to menopause or hormonal treatmets), altered bowel function and loss of energy or fatigue. Jane Freeman is a cancer dietitian who will then put this all together in a meal plan outline that includes the detail of what, when and how much. She will also recommend the most suitable nutrition or foods supplements if needed.

Fruit smoothies can be a great way of boosting your nutritional intakes whilst you are in treatment for radiotherapy