If an oncologist at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care (NCCC) has advised you to have a course of radiotherapy to your larynx (voice box) as part of your treatment, this page gives you general information and answers some of the questions you may have about the side effects of radiotherapy.
We hope you will find this helpful. If you have any further questions relating to your treatment, please do not hesitate to ask your radiographer, specialist nurse or oncologist.
Possible side effects during your treatment
Side effects can vary with each person and with the total dose of radiotherapy you receive. You may experience some and not others.
Side effects usually appear gradually during your course of treatment and may continue for a period after your treatment has finished.
Effects on the skin
Towards the end of treatment most patients experience some changes in the skin in the area that has been treated. The skin may
Most people will experience some of these changes in the treatment area after the first 10-12 days. Your skin reaction may be worse and happen earlier if you are also having chemotherapy.
Your skin will be monitored by your radiographers during radiotherapy and you will be given advice on how to care for it. You will also be seen once a week in a radiotherapy clinic by your specialist nurse and / or oncologist who will examine your skin and advise on any creams if necessary. On rare occasions the skin can become infected and a course of antibiotics may need to be prescribed by your oncologist
The effects on the skin may continue for up to six weeks after treatment has ended.
Skincare- What can I do to help?
Gently wash the treated area with warm water and a mild, unperfumed soap.
Pat the area dry using a soft towel. Don’t rub. Avoid using flannels as they can harbour germs.
Do not apply your own creams, make up, perfumes, lotions or aftershave to the treated area unless they are advised or prescribed by your specialist nurse or oncologist.
Do not apply Vaseline or lip salve during radiotherapy; as this may result in a severe skin reaction.
You will be given a moisturising cream by the radiographers or specialist nurse; this will help to soothe the skin, or your oncologist may prescribe a cream if needed. Use it twice daily, after treatment and again at bedtime; gently smoothing the cream gently over your neck. Do not rub.
It is advisable to wear loose, non-man-made (e.g. cotton) clothing around the neck without tight or stiff collars.
Wherever possible, leave the area being treated open to the air.
If you need to shave, please use an electric shaver. Try not to shave as often. Shaving involves rubbing the skin which can irritate. 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.
On completion of radiotherapy; you may be advised to use a different cream to that used during treatment to help promote comfort and healing, if this is necessary it will be following end of treatment assessment by your specialist nurse/oncologist
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.
Gently wash the treated area with warm water and a mild, unperfumed soap.
Effects on the voice
Your voice may already be hoarse before you start your treatment. It is likely that this hoarseness will get worse during your course of radiotherapy. Some patients may find that they temporarily lose their voice.
It is advisable that you rest your voice as much as possible during treatment.
Do not strain your voice to make yourself heard. When your treatment has finished it may be a few weeks before your voice starts to recover, and in some cases, may always remain husky.
This will be assessed at regular follow up appointments and any concerns will be addressed.
For those who have had surgery to remove their voice box (laryngectomy), radiotherapy will gradually change/reduce their voice quality, if you have any concerns this can be discussed with your specialist nurse, speech and swallowing therapist or oncologist
Effects on the throat:
Soreness of the throat
The lining of the throat will become sore and inflamed during the treatment which will make it difficult to swallow. This may happen after about 10-12 treatments. Your oncologist can prescribe painkillers to help and will give you advice about a softer diet. Some people manage to eat a soft diet until the soreness has settled. This usually occurs a few weeks after treatment has finished.
Towards the end of your course of treatment the throat can become too sore to eat and drink even soft foods. Your oncologist or specialist nurse may suggest increasing your painkillers – these can be supplied in liquid or dispersible form if necessary, and there is a dietician and a dental hygienist available if required.
For a few people, swallowing can become even more difficult, e.g. food sticking at the back of the throat or drinks going down the wrong way. Alert your oncologist, radiographer, specialist nurse or dietician if this is happening to you. In some cases; a feeding tube may be required to ensure you receive full nutrition.
A speech and swallowing therapist is available in the weekly review clinic for more advice.
Dry mouth or throat
The radiotherapy can gradually make your mouth and throat dry. This is caused by damage to the salivary glands that produce saliva to keep your mouth moist. Your saliva may become thick and stringy. You may find it helpful to carry a bottle of water for sipping during the day. Extra care must be taken with mouth care. You will be given a mouthwash to use during treatment. Please only use mouthwashes given to you at NCCC as some commercial mouthwashes may make your mouth more sore. Please speak to your radiographer, specialist nurse or oncologist for further advice.
Most people find that the salivary glands gradually recover, but for some it can be a permanent change.
Eating and drinking
It is important that you eat well during your treatment. You may have to eat a softer diet or use supplement drinks when your throat becomes sore. Avoid rough or dry foods such as toast, bacon, hot, spicy or acidic foods.
Smoking during radiotherapy
It is recommended that you stop smoking during your treatment. Smoking reduces the effectiveness of radiotherapy and increases the associated side effects. It is appreciated that stopping smoking may be difficult for you. Please ask your radiographer, specialist nurse, oncologist or GP for help with smoking cessation.
Tiredness / Fatigue
Radiotherapy can sometimes make you feel very tired especially towards the end of your course of treatment and may continue for a number of weeks.
You should rest as much as you need to. It may be some time before you feel able to do some of your usual activities.
Fatigue is something nearly everybody with cancer feels. It affects people differently and it is important to tell the health care team if you are feeling much more tired, fatigued or lethargic. There are some physical causes, such as anaemia that are readily treatable. However, some other causes are unavoidable, so it is important to learn to manage it.
Please ask for a booklet on fatigue at the Information Centre that may give you tips to help with this.
It is important to make time for yourself. The radiotherapy can make you feel tired or low in mood towards the end of your course of 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 Macmillan nurses, dietician and social worker.
A Clinical Psychology service is available at NCCC on referral from your oncologist.
There are a number of other services which you might find of benefit and contact details for these are provided at the end of this leaflet.
Sexual activity is personal to each individual and may be an aspect of your life about which you have concerns relating to your disease or treatment. You may have questions you wish to ask. Please talk to your oncologist, specialist nurse or radiographer if you would like to talk about these issues confidentially.
It is very important that women and become pregnant whilst undergoing treatment. Please inform a member of staff immediately if you think you may be pregnant. You will be asked (if appropriate) to confirm that you are not pregnant by one of the radiographers before starting treatment.
Your oncologist and/or specialist nurse will see you once a week in a radiotherapy clinic during your treatment. You may also see the dietician, the speech and swallowing therapist and the dental hygienist here.
They will discuss any concerns you may have regarding your radiotherapy such as pain control, dietary requirements, swallowing, communication advice, mouth care, skincare and psychological support.
You may find it helpful to write down any questions you may have.
After your radiotherapy has finished
Following completion of radiotherapy, the side effects vary from person to person; and may last for several months. Continue with your skin and mouth-care routines until advised otherwise.
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.
Your own specialist team at Freeman Hospital or Sunderland will address any longer term problems.
You will be sent a follow up appointment to see your specialist team shortly after completion of treatment in the Head and Neck Multi-disciplinary Clinic at the Freeman Hospital or Sunderland Royal Hospital.
If you are worried about your side effects after your radiotherapy has finished, please contact your specialist nurse, the NCCC Information Centre or your own GP for further advice.
Head and Neck Nurse Specialists at Freeman Hospital, 0191 2137285
Head and Neck Nurse Specialists at Sunderland Royal Hospital, Ward C33, Sunderland Royal Hospital, 0191 5699733
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