Side effects of radiotherapy to the oesophagus

Radiotherapy can cause side effects. These may be mild or more troublesome but most will progressively disappear when treatment finishes. General effects include feeling tired or sick, but radiotherapy to the oesophagus can also cause more localised side effects. Your oncologist will discuss possible side effects with you and suggest treatments to improve them.

Possible side effects include:

  • Skin changes – the skin around the treatment area can get dry and sore.
  • Difficulty swallowing – if your throat becomes very sore you may have difficulty swallowing.
  • Dry mouth – radiotherapy can affect your saliva and give you a dry mouth.
  • Loss of appetite – you may not feel like eating during treatment but a dietitian can support you and help you maintain your weight.
  • Hair loss – some men may lose chest hair.
  • Tiredness – you’ll need to rest more than usual during treatment as it can cause fatigue. Maintaining a little bit of activity when you feel able to will help improve your energy levels.

About radiotherapy side effects

Radiotherapy can cause general side effects such as feeling sick (nausea) and tiredness (fatigue), but it’s also likely to make the inside of your oesophagus inflamed, causing short-term soreness when you swallow. These side effects can be mild or more troublesome, depending on the strength of the radiotherapy dose and the length of your treatment.

It's not unusual to feel worse before you start to feel better. Some people can find this a very difficult time and they may feel low or even depressed for a while. The clinical oncologist can advise you about what to expect.

Skin changes

The skin in the area being treated sometimes gets dry and irritated. Avoid using perfumed soaps or body washes during treatment as they could irritate the skin. You’ll be given advice on looking after your skin. Your doctor can prescribe cream to soothe it if it becomes sore.

Sore throat and difficulty swallowing

Radiotherapy can make your throat very sore towards the end of the treatment, and you may not be able to swallow properly for a while. The soreness can last for a few weeks after the radiotherapy ends. Your doctor can prescribe medicines to help.

Some people have a feeding tube put into their stomach before the radiotherapy starts. Liquid food can be given through the tube. Your doctor can talk to you about whether this is necessary and give you information about the type of tube to be used. We also have more information about feeding tubes and how they’re used.

Dry mouth

If radiotherapy is given to the upper end of the oesophagus, it may reduce the amount of saliva your salivary glands produce. This effect may be temporary but sometimes can be permanent. This may make your mouth dry, which can make eating difficult.

Loss of appetite

During radiotherapy, you sometimes may not feel like eating very much. It’s important to try and maintain your weight so talk to your dietitian for advice.

Feeling sick

Radiotherapy can cause you to feel sick (nausea) and to be sick (vomiting). This can usually be treated well with anti-sickness drugs (called anti-emetics). Your doctor can prescribe these.

Hair loss

When radiotherapy is used to treat the oesophagus, men may find that some of the hair on their chest may fall out.

Tiredness (fatigue)

Radiotherapy can cause tiredness. In some people, this continues for several months after treatment. During your treatment you’ll need to rest more than usual, especially if you have to travel a long way each day. But it’s good to do gentle exercise, such as walking, when you feel able to. Once your treatment is over, gradually increase your activity and try to balance rest periods with gentle exercise. This will help build up your energy levels.

These side effects should disappear gradually once your course of treatment is over, but it’s important to let your doctor know if they continue.

Radiotherapy doesn’t make you radioactive and it’s perfectly safe for you to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment.

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Who might I meet?

You will meet many different specialists before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.