Cancer Treatments and Side-Effects: Surgery and Radiation Therapy

When your oncologist tells you that you’ll be undergoing radiation therapy for your cancer, a lot of questions may be going through your mind that you may not ask. It is completely understandable that you may be overwhelmed and just don’t want to think about the next set of challenges you’ll be facing, but not knowing what lies ahead can make treatment a more difficult process. Being aware of the common types of cancer treatment and their side effects can help prepare you for the realities of cancer treatment and give you the information necessary to have a thorough conversation about treatment options with your doctor.


Probably the earliest form of cancer treatment, surgery is actually used for multiple purposes when it comes to cancer. It is used to prevent, diagnose, stage, and treat cancer. There are two main types of surgery that may be used to wholly or partially treat cancer. Curative surgery, also called primary surgery, is typically done when cancer is only found in one part of the body and the probability that ALL of it can be removed is high. Surgery is the main treatment in this case. Other treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, may be used before or after the operation. If curative surgery is not possible because it would cause too much damage to nearby tissues or organs, debulking surgery may be used to remove some of the cancer. The doctor would take out as much as possible and then treat the remaining cancer with other treatments.

Side-effects of cancer surgery are similar to the side-effects of any surgery and may include pain, fatigue, appetite loss, swelling and/or bruising at surgery site, numbness, bleeding, infection, and organ dysfunction.

Radiation Therapy

One of the most common treatments for cancer, radiation therapy uses high-energy waves or particles (radiation) to damage or destroy cancer cells. Special equipment sends high doses of radiation to the tumor or cancer cells to prevent them from growing and spreading. Radiation therapy can affect normal cells near a tumor, but normal cells have the power to repair themselves while cancer cells do not. The form of treatment may be the only type needed or it may be just one part of a patient’s treatment plan. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation therapy treats just the cancer while chemo treats the whole body.

General side-effects of radiation therapy may include fatigue, skin irritation, fever/chills, (if receiving radiation to the neck or head area) sore mouth, dry mouth, (if receiving radiation to abdomen) nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, appetite change, (radiation to chest) pain or difficulty swallowing, soreness of breast, and other side-effects related to the specific site of radiation. Be sure to ask your doctor what side-effects to expect for your particular radiation therapy treatment.