Northern Centre for Cancer Care

Radiotherapy to the arm or leg (limb)

Introduction

Your oncologist has advised a course of radiotherapy to your arm or leg (limb).

This page has been written to give you general information and aims to answer some of the questions often asked by patients and their carers.

We hope you will find this helpful

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Side effects during your treatment

Side effects vary with each person and with the total dose of radiotherapy you receive. You may experience some and not others.

Short term (early) side effects

Early side effects are temporary and affect most patients. The side effects generally develop soon after treatment and can last for several weeks.

Effects on the skin

Towards the end of treatment some patients may experience changes in the skin over the area that has been treated. The skin may

  • feel tight and uncomfortable
  • become pink or red
  • become dry and flaky
  • itch

Hair

The hair in the treatment area will become sparse and fall out after two to three weeks. It should re-grow after your treatment reactions have settled.The area may swell due to fluid not draining away (lymphoedema). Your skin will be monitored by your radiographers during radiotherapyand you will be given advice on skincare.

Skin care – what can I do to help?

We recommend that you take care of your skin during and after your radiotherapy as the reaction may continue after treatment has finished.
  • Keep the area cool. Wear loose, preferably cotton clothing that does not rub the skin and will allow air to circulate.
  • Do not soak the area in the bath or under a long hot shower. You may wash your skin in the treated area using a simple, unperfumed soap applied gently with your hands and rinsed well with warm water. Avoid using flannels or sponges. Pat the area dry with a soft towel or let the skin dry naturally.
  • Do not use talcum powder, bubble baths, bath salts, shower gels or body lotions on the treated area as they tend to be highly perfumed and can dry or irritate the skin. You may be given a moisturising cream to soothe the skin from the radiographers or nurses, or your oncologist may prescribe a cream if needed.
  • Do not shave the treatment area. Shaving involves rubbing the skin which can irritate.
  • Radiotherapy will make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Avoid exposing the area to strong sunlight during and after your course of treatment. Do not use a sun lamp or sun bed. It is advisable to use a sun block (factor 25 or above) or keep the area covered when in the sun.

Tiredness/Fatigue

Radiotherapy can sometimes make you feel very tired especially towards the end of your course of treatment and for a number of weeks after. It may be a while before you feel able to do some of your usual activities. You should rest as much as you need to although gentle exercise may help. Fatigue is something nearly everyone with cancer feels. It affects people differently and it is important to tell the health care team if you are feeling more tired than usual. There are some physical causes, such as anaemia that are readily treatable.

Please ask for a booklet on fatigue at the Information Centre in NCCC which will give you tips to help with this.

Possible long-term or permanent effects of treatment

  • Tissue fibrosis – the area treated by radiotherapy may feel hard and woody. The muscles may sometimes feel stiff limiting the range of movement of the affected joints.
  • Lymphoedema (swelling) beyond the site of radiotherapy.
  • Above average risk of arm or leg fractures (you may be given advice on avoiding certain sports).
  • You may require physiotherapy to advise on exercises to help you maintain your mobility.

Your emotions

It is important to make time for yourself. Emotions associated with the reactions to a diagnosis of cancer may come to the surface at various stages during your treatment. Don’t worry if you feel low, this is normal. If you need to talk to someone, please ask, we are here to help. We have a wide range of support services within the department, such as the palliative care team, dietician and social worker.

A clinical psychology service is also available at NCCC on referral from your oncologist.

Sex

Having radiotherapy will have no long-term effect on your sex life. However when you are tired or have worries about your cancer, your sex drive can be affected. This is personal to each individual and may be an aspect of your life about which you have concerns. You may have questions you wish to ask. Please talk to your radiographer, oncologist or the nurse specialist if you would like to talk about these issues confidentially.

There is more information available on this subject in the Information Centre at NCCC.

Pregnancy

It is very important that women are not and do not become pregnant whilst undergoing radiotherapy. Please inform a member of staffimmediately if you think you may be pregnant.

Your progress

You will be seen by a member of your specialist team once a week during your treatment. This will be an opportunity to discuss any concerns or problems you may have. Please tell your treatment radiographers if you have any problems between appointments.

After your radiotherapy has finished

 The side effects of radiotherapy can continue for several weeks after treatment has finished. Continue with your skincare routine until any changes return to normal. On your last treatment you will be given a discharge letter with a copy for your GP summarising any side effects you may have and any creams or medication you have been prescribed at NCCC.

You will be sent a follow up appointment to see your specialist team usually between four to six weeks after finishing treatment. You will get a letter giving you a date and time for your appointment. If you are worried about your side effects after your treatment has finished, please contact the information centre at NCCC, your specialist team at your referring hospital or your own GP for further advice.

More Information

Useful Contacts

Northern Centre for Cancer Care Macmillan Information and Support Centre, 0191 2138611
Opening hours Monday to Friday from 9am to 4.30pm

Macmillan Cancer Relief, Head office 020 7840 7840, freephone 0808 800 1234, www.macmillan.org.uk

Leaflet to Download

Radiotherapy to the arm or leg (limb).pdf

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