Helping Seniors Undergoing Radiation Therapy

Advice for families and caregivers

In radiation therapy, high doses of radiation are used to kill cancer cells and stop them from spreading. Since the radiation also kills healthy cells, it causes side effects. Support from a caregiver can be very helpful at this time.

Q&A for Seniors and Radiation Therapy
What are the typical side effects of radiation?

The typical side effects are:

  • fatigue or exhaustion
  • skin changes, including dryness, itching, peeling or blistering
  • diarrhea
  • nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite
  • loss of hair in the area treated
  • mouth problems
  • difficulty swallowing
  • changes in the bladder and with urination
  • sexual changes.
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How can I help my parent who has diarrhea from radiation?
Diarrhea results when healthy cells in the bowels are harmed by the radiation.
Drinking 10 to 12 glasses of clear liquids a day, such as bouillon; clear, fat-free broth; or strained vegetable broth; should help. Other options include sweet drinks such as juices, punches and fruit-flavored drinks; clear carbonated beverages; sports drinks; tea; water; popsicles and fruit ices without fruit pieces or milk; and plain gelatin dessert.

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How can I help my parent who has nausea and vomiting from radiation?

Radiation treatment in the stomach, small intestine, colon and parts of the brain can result in nausea.

  • Remind your parent that when the treatment ends, he or she will feel a lot better.
  • To help your parent during treatment, avoid any strong smells in the home, especially fish.
  • Suggest that your parent eat several small meals throughout the day, rather than a few large ones.
  • Bland foods are best, and can include:
    • Clear broth, such as chicken or beef
    • Clear carbonated beverages
    • Rice, crackers or boiled potatoes
    • Broiled or baked chicken, with the skin removed
    • Cranberry or grape juice
    • Fruit-flavored drinks or fruit punch
    • Sports drinks
    • Tea
    • Water
    • Cream of wheat
    • Noodles
    • Oatmeal
    • Pretzels
    • Toast
    • Angel food cake
    • Canned peaches
    • Gelatin
    • Sherbet
    • Yogurt
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Would alternative treatments help with the nausea from radiation?

Some people find them very helpful. You can:

  • Encourage your parent to try a relaxation technique before treatment. Many people find the regular practice of relaxation techniques to be invaluable at this time, reducing fatigue and improving sleep.
  • Others find that listening to calming music, meditating, reading, or doing something he or she enjoys can decrease the nausea.
  • Suggest that your parent try acupuncture, which for some people counteracts nausea.
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How can I help my parent's skin changes as a result of radiation?

Radiation may result in a variety of painful or uncomfortable skin changes, such as redness, extreme itchiness, or dryness. When any of these three symptoms occur, tell your parent to:

  • Avoid rubbing or scratching the affected area and to be very gentle there.
  • Only use creams recommended by the doctor.
  • Use only lukewarm water and avoid anything hot or cold on the affected area.
  • Follow doctor's orders and use only soaps that are fragrance-and-deodorant-free and approved by the doctor.
  • Gently pat him- or herself dry after bathing, with a very soft towel.
  • Keep his or her room as cool and humid as possible, which will be more comfortable for the skin.
  • Search for clothes and bed linens that have soft fabrics, such as silk or satin, as these will be far more comfortable than others.
  • Avoid wearing clothing that fits tightly over the area treated.
  • Avoid using heating pads or ice packs over the area treated.
  • Keep the affected area out of the sun during treatment and for at least a year afterwards.
  • Understand that the skin changes should go away a few weeks after the end of treatment, but that perhaps the skin quality will not return to what it had been, both in thickness and color.
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How can I help my parent cope with hair loss as a result of radiation?

You can do several things to help make your parent more comfortable:

  • Find a very soft pillowcase, such as one made from silk or satin.
  • Get your parent something to protect his or her scalp from sunburn, such as a scarf, wig, hat or sunscreen.
  • Encourage your parent to get a short haircut, which will make the hair appear thicker and fuller.
  • Avoid stiff hairbrushes, brush rollers, and hair treatments, such as permanents or coloring.
  • Only use mild shampoos.
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Is there anything I can do to mitigate my parent's radiation-induced fatigue?

Encourage your parent to:

  • Eat lots of protein, which will help repair body tissues.
  • Consume an adequate number of calories and fluids.
  • Take a multivitamin.
  • Exercise, which could help your parent feel more energetic and lift his or her spirits.
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Does my parent need to stop smoking since he already has cancer and is undergoing radiation?

Smoking has been shown to inhibit the effectiveness of radiation treatment, to increase the cancer mortality rate, and to increase the rate of getting other cancers in addition to the one for which a person is receiving radiation. So yes, stopping smoking would be very helpful.

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How can I help my parent who is depressed from the side effects of radiation?

Depression during treatment is quite common, perhaps from the exhaustion that accompanies radiation, from side effects, or from worries about future quality of life. Here are some things you can do:

  • Reassure your parent that the side effects will disappear within a few weeks of ending treatment, but also tell his or her doctor about the depression. Treating the depression may help your parent's recovery from the radiation.
  • If your parent can summon enough energy to exercise, it could help lift his or her spirits a bit.
  • Some people benefit from joining a support group for people dealing with cancer or with their particular form of cancer. In some support groups, participants share their experiences and feelings, while in others they practice things like yoga or guided meditation. Support groups can be found at your local hospital, or online at Find one that fits your parent's personality and preferences.
  • Many people find talking with a clergy person to be helpful.
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How can I find a caregiver for my parent who is undergoing radiation therapy? is a website that lists people throughout the United States who provide care to seniors, includes photos and descriptions of their experience, and does free background checks for members. You can search by zip code. For specific listings, go to

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