Adrenal gland

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Potential side effects of radiation therapy for adrenal gland cancer

Side effects can occur with any type of treatment for adrenal gland cancer, but not everyone has them or experiences them in the same way. Side effects of radiation therapy will depend mainly on the:

  • size of the area being treated
  • specific area or organs being treated
  • total dose

Radiation therapy damages cancer cells, but healthy cells in the treatment area can also be damaged, even though steps are taken to protect them as much as possible. Different cells and tissues in the body tolerate radiation differently.

Side effects can happen any time during radiation therapy. Some may happen during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after radiation therapy. Most side effects go away after radiation therapy is finished. Late side effects can occur months or years later. Some side effects may last a long time or be permanent.

It is important to report side effects to the healthcare team. Many side effects can be relieved by medications, a change in diet or other measures. Doctors may also grade (measure) how severe certain side effects are. Sometimes radiation therapy treatments need to be adjusted if side effects are severe.


Fatigue is one of the most common side effects of external beam radiation therapy. It is usually related to toxic substances that are produced when cancer cells break down and die. During radiation therapy the body uses energy to heal itself, so fatigue will not always be relieved by rest. Fatigue usually occurs within 2 weeks of receiving treatment. Symptoms of fatigue may increase or become more severe over the course of treatment. Fatigue usually goes away gradually after treatment has ended, but some people continue to feel tired for several weeks or months afterward.

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Nausea may occur 1–3 hours after the daily radiation treatment about 1–2 weeks into therapy. Vomiting sometimes occurs with the nausea. Nausea and vomiting should be reported to the radiation therapy team. Nausea and vomiting can usually be managed with anti-nausea medication. Symptoms usually go away once treatment is finished.

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Skin reactions

Skin reactions occur because external beam radiation therapy travels through the skin to reach the area being targeted for treatment. The skin in the treated area may become red, dry or itchy. Most skin reactions occur within the first 2 weeks of receiving external beam radiation therapy. They usually go away a few weeks after treatment, but some skin changes, such as skin darkening or scarring, may persist. Some people do not experience any skin reactions with radiation therapy.

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Diarrhea is frequent and very loose (watery) stools. Abdominal cramping may occur with the diarrhea. Diarrhea often begins 2–3 weeks into radiation therapy. Report diarrhea to the radiation therapy team. They can suggest over-the-counter or prescription medicines to help relieve diarrhea.

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Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite (anorexia) can be caused by many factors, including:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • fatigue

Loss of appetite can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Maintaining good nutrition during and after radiation therapy is important to help a person recover from treatment. A registered dietitian can give advice to help people increase their appetite, eat more and maintain their nutrition. Dietitians may also suggest nutritional supplements.

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