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Cancer radiation and children

Irene K. Taw, MD  

Irene K.Taw, MD, is a pediatric radiation oncologist with Cardon Children's Medical Center.

Question: My child was diagnosed with cancer and it was recommended he undergo Radiation Therapy. What kind of side effects can radiation have on his or her health?

Answer: Radiation is one type of treatment for childhood cancer. While it does have some potential side effects, your child’s physicians will take extensive measures to protect your child’s future health.

Radiation works by preventing cancer cells from growing or reproducing by destroying them with targeted high-energy X-rays or gamma rays. It is typically painless and can be administered externally, internally or both.

Radiation treatments can be administered in the hospital, as an outpatient or, on occasion, it can be just once.

Because radiation therapy destroys cancer cells, it can also damage healthy cells, which is how side effects develop. Everything depends on the dose of the treatment, the location of the treatment and whether it was delivered internally or externally. Young cancer patients may or may not have side effects. Most side effects can be controlled or will subside after treatment is stopped, usually within a few weeks. Some potential side effects are:

  • Fatigue: The body is working hard to develop healthy cells so encourage your child to rest or sleep as much as possible, a good prescription for any patient.
  • Abnormal bone and soft tissue growth and development: Most often, abnormal growth is seen in the leg. Slight growth can be managed by a shoe lift. More dramatic growth may need surgery. The affected bones can also be weak, creating a high risk of fracture within the first 18 months of radiation. Patients should avoid contact and high impact sports during treatment.
  • Skin changes:  External radiation can cause the skin to become red, sensitive or irritated during and after treatment. Your doctor can prescribe ointments to soothe the area. Because of skin sensitivity, children should wear loose-fitting, soft clothes, as well as high SPF (30 or more) for months afterwards.
  • Hair loss: Treatment for head and neck cancer can lead to hair thinning or hair loss shortly after treatment. This could be temporary or permanent depending on the treatment dosage.
  • Mouth changes: Head and neck cancer patients can have mouth soreness and sometimes an increased risk of tooth decay. Pre-dental workup prior to radiation treatment and a good oral hygiene is important to help decrease that risk.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Following treatment, kids might experience a loss of appetite, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting. It is very important that your child continue to eat foods high in nutrients. Your physician can prescribe medicine that can help upset stomachs.
  • Blood changes: Your physician will monitor your child’s blood count to make sure that his platelets, white blood cells and red blood cells remain at a healthy level. They could become low due to radiation treatment, especially if the patient received chemotherapy along with the radiation.

To get answers more specific to your child’s case, I encourage you to talk with his pediatric oncologist or radiation oncologist about his diagnosis. And remember, coping with childhood cancer can be frightening for your child and you, but most kids treated with radiation therapy go on to live healthy, full lives.

Page Last Modified: 08/05/2013
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