Helping a Patient Who is Receiving Radiation Therapy

Cancer is a major healthcare problem in the US. With more than 1.8 million new estimated cases in 2020, caregivers are likely to encounter patients who are receiving cancer treatments such as radiation therapy.

To care for cancer patients effectively, caregivers must learn the basics of radiation treatments. Radiation therapy or radiotherapy uses high energy to kill cancer cells. The high energy is delivered through beams from a machine to the outside of the body.

When given externally, the beams penetrate through the skin and reach the tumor in a local area. Sometimes, the patient receives radiation through solid or liquid sources placed in capsules and seeds. These sources are then inserted into the body area near the tumor. This procedure is called internal radiation. In both external and internal radiation, the surrounding area may be affected by the radiation source, too.

At other times, patients receive systemic radiotherapy where treatment is given through the blood vessels and then circulates throughout the body. In this systemic type of treatment, the patient's body fluids, such as urine, sweat, and saliva, will give off radiation. At this time, it may not be safe to handle these body fluids with bare hands.

Radiation helps shrink tumors, and, therefore, it either stops cancer from recurring or controls the symptoms of the disease. Patients may have to come back several times to complete the treatment.

Here are ways to care for patients who are receiving radiotherapy:

1. Always refer to the care plan.

Every cancer patient will receive treatment according to their needs, and as such, caregivers need to refer to the care plan for the specifics. Always ensure that your tasks align with the care plan.

2. Protect the irradiated part.

After treatment, the radiation site may itch, peel, feel painful, or appear flaky. Note and report these changes to the supervisor. Protect the affected part. Avoid rubbing or pressing the area. Remind the patient to refrain from scratching when it itches.

Clean the area gently with water only. Typically, you cannot apply lotions, deodorants, powders, and perfume on the site. Take care not to remove the markings made by the radiation team on the patient's skin. These markings need to be visible until their succeeding treatment.

Help patients wear soft and comfortable clothes, too, to prevent further damage to the skin.

3. Offer emotional support.

Cancer and its treatment is a difficult journey for many patients. When patients feel anxious, scared, or depressed, be willing to listen. Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Be there for them and offer your presence. Sometimes, the patient will have questions regarding their treatment, so you would refer them to the nurse or supervisor.

4. Care for the patient when they feel weak or tired after treatment.

Radiation and the stress it brings may cause the patient to feel unwell or worn out. Fatigue is usually worse after several sessions of radiation treatment. To help patients, try to spread out activities throughout the day instead of cramming them into a short time. Offer to assist them when getting out of bed or going to another room.

5. Prepare meals according to the recommended diet.

Some cancer patients, such as those receiving radiotherapy to the face or neck, may experience chewing and swallowing difficulties. They may report nausea, mouth sores, and swelling in the throat, all of which make it hard to eat.

Keep in mind that the patient needs the right amount of nutrients for their body to heal and recover, so it's best to sustain their nutrition despite these problems.

6. Follow safety precautions.

For those receiving internal radiation implants, you will have limited time spent with the patient as they may give off some radiation while they have it and even after its removal. Avoid the body fluids of patients who received systemic treatment.

Usually, only essential cleaning of the patient’s room is required. The nurse informs you if you need to do housekeeping. You'll have to wash your hands thoroughly before entering and after leaving the room. You need to wear gloves, too. Always follow safety instructions in the care plan.

Radiation therapy has many advantages for a cancer patient. Caregivers can help ensure that the patient receives the best care during this period to maximize its benefits.