Suffering with cancer comes with a host of different challenges and obstacles – financially, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Throughout the course of your treatment, you may have begun, or are currently undergoing radiation therapy. Radiation therapy works by creating small breaks inside of the DNA of cells. These breaks help disrupt the growth and division of cancer cells, causing them to die. This article will focus on things to avoid during radiation therapy.
Does Radiation Therapy Work?
A Brief Overview
It’s no secret that radiation therapy has become one of the most popular and most effective forms of cancer treatment.
In fact, the number of radiation treated cancer survivors is projected to reach 3.38 million by 2020, and 4.17 million by 2030 according to a study completed by the American Association for Cancer Research. Additionally, evidence shows that nearly 40 percent of all cancer patients would benefit from radiation therapy.
It’s clear that radiation cancer treatment comes with a host of benefits for patients wishing to utilize it in their battle against cancer, but isn’t without its own pitfalls and dangers. Luckily, many of the things to avoid during radiation therapy are well within the patient (or caretaker’s) control. You should take certain precautions during radiation therapy, and the most important are outlined here.
Things to Avoid During Radiation Therapy – Aloe Vera
Many cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy aren’t aware of the precautions to take, and will utilize aloe vera to deal with some of the unpleasant side effects that come along with it. People typically use aloe vera to deal with low-level sunburns and things of the like. A popular misconception of this useful plant is its effectiveness for burn care for radiation treatment patients.
What is Aloe Vera?
Aloe vera is a plant-based alternative therapy method for cancer treatment. The aloe plant is a cactus-like plant that contains fleshy leaves – inside of these leaves is the aloe vera many of us see on the shelves in pharmacies and stores.
Aloe vera is a thin gel that many use to treat the effects of sunburn, cuts, and light superficial burns. Additionally, many skin and beauty products contain aloe vera as a moisturizer. In cancer care, patients may use it as a treatment for sore or burnt skin resulting from radiation therapy, though using aloe vera for this purpose has not been scientifically verified. Please Note: chemotherapy skin burns should be examined separately, including treatment options.
Why Cancer Patients Use Aloe Vera
Aloe vera has been used as a means of alternative cancer treatment since the 1930’s – however, it’s history is a bit more complicated than that.
While undergoing radiation therapy, patients may experience bouts of radiodermatitis. Radiodermatitis is a skin condition that comes as a result of radiation treatment, causing pain, discomfort, sleep disruptions and an overall decrease in quality of life. In severe cases, radiodermatitis can cause disruptions in treatment or reductions in the amount of radiation therapy a patient can undertake – negatively impacting the therapy’s ability to appropriately treat the cancer. Radiodermatitis occurrence can be as high as 95 percent depending on the population receiving treatment, so it stands to reason that patients would be looking for a way to treat their discomfort.
Aloe vera is typically marketed to individuals undergoing radiation therapy, described as effective treatment for “sunburn type” reactions which are often referred to as radiation burns. Of course, the truth could not be farther than this claim. Let’s take a deeper look.
Why You Should Not Use Aloe Vera During Radiation Therapy
Concisely, we can say this:
There is scientific evidence backing up claims that aloe vera is not recommended for patients undergoing radiation therapy.
In fact, in some instances, aloe vera may actually have an adverse effect on treatment. While there is no substantial scientific data backing up the positives of using aloe vera as an alternative form of treatment post-radiation, there is plenty of data supporting the opposite:
- Aloe vera provided no benefit in multiple studies and systematic reviews. Quasi-experimental study showed that aloe vera based gel was not effective in preventing effects on the skin and facilitating patient comfort among 45 pediatric patients receiving radiation therapy
- Two randomized trials did not show a benefit of aloe vera gel as it relates to reducing the incidence of radiation therapy-induced skin toxicity
- Systematic reviews have not provided evidence in support of the use of aloe vera for the purpose of treating the effects of radiation therapy
- In one analysis, aloe vera was actually associated with higher toxicity
What to Use Instead of Aloe Vera?
It’s clear that there are no benefits as far as aloe vera is concerned in post-radiation treatment. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any solutions to dealing with radiodermatitis and it’s painful side effects.
It’s important to find something that is not just marketed for “burns”, but is actually formulated for post-radiation treatment and has scientific studies to back up their claims. Companies such as CamWell provide safe, oncologist-formulated solutions when it comes to radiation burn cream. Specifically, CamWell’s products are built on the following:
- Superior quality, non-toxic botanical creams that are formulated based on Western science and the wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
- Cream for radiation burns that is safe and backed by science
- Comprised of herbs that have been successfully used in TCM for thousands of years, harvested in their natural habitats in the rural regions of China
- Pharmaceutical grade packaging to ensure no chemicals or toxins leak into creams
Perhaps most important, CamWell’s products and claims are backed up with clinical trials, proving their effectiveness.
In these trials, 39 patients suffering from breast and lung cancer were treated with a CamWell product utilizing TCM, while 35 were from a control group. After using the product, 69.2 percent of the patients treated with the CamWell product reported a complete response to the therapy, and 25.6 percent reported a measurable improvement over the discomfort they had been feeling.
Things to Avoid During Radiation Therapy – Missed Sessions
Perhaps one of the more common causes of unsuccessful cancer therapy is simply missing the appointments themselves – an all too common refrain from many patients and certainly something to avoid during radiation therapy.
Aside from simply adding time onto the length of your total treatment, there’s plenty of scientific data that illustrates the fact that missing radiation appointments can have a tremendously adverse effect on your cancer treatment.
According to the National Cancer Institute, patients who miss radiation therapy sessions are at increased risk of their disease returning, even if they eventually complete all of their radiation treatment. Researchers also believe continually missing sessions could be an indicator for other risk factors that could negatively affect outcomes, such as mental health needs and lack of a solid social support system.
There’s much to be discussed and dissected as it pertains to these claims, but there is scientific precedent for making them.
The Science Behind Missed Sessions
Take, for example, a study appearing in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology. This study analyzed data from more than 1200 patients, with a goal of determining whether or not patients who were classified as “noncompliant” as it relates to their radiation sessions were at any larger risk than those patients who were “compliant.” We go much more in-depth on the reasons behind the common question of how many radiation sessions can you miss here.
Noncompliant patients were categorized as patients who missed two or more of their scheduled appointments. Shockingly, of those patients that fell into the noncompliant category, 22 percent ended up missing at least four appointments.
Upon completion of the study, research showed the following:
- Missing two or more appointments prolonged the course of radiation therapy by an average of 7.2 days per patient
- In the follow-up period for this study, 9 percent of the noncompliant patients had their cancer return, while 19 percent had died
- The conclusion being that patients who had been noncompliant with their therapy had put themselves at an increased risk of their disease returning, and had inferior rates of survival when compared to their compliant counterparts
In addition to the above referenced study, a second separate study was conducted by Montefiore. Montefiore’s study looked at over 1,000 patients from a period of 2007-2012 and showed similar results:
- 16 percent of noncompliant patients had their cancer return, compared to just 7 percent of their compliant counterparts
- The overall survival rate of noncompliant patients was 11% less than that of the compliant patients (72% versus 83%)
How to Mitigate Missed Radiation Therapy Sessions
Dealing with cancer is a intensive process in which there will be challenges. Some patients will have a less than flawless track record as it pertains to attending their radiation sessions, and while one or two missed sessions may not have a tremendous impact on your overall treatment, it’s imperative that you employ one of these strategies should you find yourself repeatedly falling behind:
- Let your doctor know if you need to take a short break from treatment for any reason. The side effects of radiation therapy can be intense, and short-term interruptions of only a day or two are unlikely to have a drastic effect on your treatment
- Talk with the radiation center/treatment center staff about your scheduling needs. Many times, treatment may interfere or conflict with your job, transportation, or family needs. The staff and your doctor can help work out a flexible schedule that is convenient as possible for you
- Educate yourself on the potential side-effects of radiation therapy before, during, and after your treatment. Knowing what to expect can go a long way in helping alleviate feelings of anxiety and aversion to attending sessions
More Things to Avoid During Your Radiation Therapy – Foods
It’s important to note before diving into this section – Only your doctor should advise/prescribe a specific diet for each patient based on their individual situation. Consult your doctor for any and all dietary questions.
This is a common topic and a familiar question asked by those undergoing radiation therapy:
“What foods should I avoid during radiation?”
Food can go a long way towards easing side effects of radiation therapy, as well as aiding in the fight against cancer itself. And while there are plenty of foods that WILL help your body throughout your treatment, there a plenty you should steer clear of as well.
Specific Foods to Avoid During Radiation Therapy
These food groups can be particularly dangerous to patients undergoing this type of cancer treatment:
Sodium/Salt – This mineral increases your blood pressure and will cause your body to retain water which, in turn, will cause you to retain harmful toxins during your treatments. Look for low-sodium items if possible as one precaution to take during radiation therapy.
Raw Fish/Shellfish – Any sort of raw fish or shellfish – including clams, oysters, and sushi – can be especially dangerous to eat during cancer treatment.
Radiation therapy sometimes kills healthy cells, reduces the strength of the immune system, and increases your susceptibility to diseases and infection. Raw fish and shellfish are often contaminated with viruses, parasites and bacteria, so it’s best to stay away from these items for the duration of your treatment.
Unpeeled Fruits and Vegetables – At first glance, you’d assume fruits and vegetables would be considered helpful during cancer treatment. While these items do contain a fair amount of nutrients and vitamins, there’s some precautions to take during radiation therapy before raiding the fruit bowl.
Radiation therapy also creates toxins in your body that decrease digestive enzymes needed to digest food. Unpeeled raw fruits and veggies contain bacteria that could increase the risk of infection in the gastrointestinal tract. They’re also foods that are high in fiber, which may be hard to digest during treatment.
Fried Foods – Fried foods aren’t the best thing to eat at any point, but they can be especially damaging to someone undergoing radiation treatment. Not only are these generally difficult to digest, but the process of frying increases the production of free radicals. These substances accelerate the aging and breakdown of cell membranes, which can alter what enters and exits the cell. Its best to avoid fried foods as a precaution during your radiation therapy.
Spicy Foods – Plenty of us enjoy spicy foods, but the truth is they could wreak havoc on your body if you eat them while undergoing radiation therapy. Radiation typically causes nausea and loose stools or constipation. Spicy foods can irritate the intestines and rectum, as well as cause discomfort and cramping in the gastrointestinal tract. When asking “What foods should I avoid as a precaution during radiation?” Stay away from anything that is overwhelmingly spicy while you’re undergoing treatment.
What Foods Can I Eat During Radiation Therapy?
Fortunately, there is plenty left on the menu even when taking all of those foods out of the equation. Nutrition is an integral part of cancer treatment as well as recovery, and good nutrition comes with a plethora of benefits:
- Feel Better – An overall feeling of wellness due to providing your body with the nourishment it needs
- Maintain Strength and Energy – Calories from wholesome nutrition will help keep your body running at its optimal level
- Maintain Weight and Nutrients – Oftentimes, treatment will cause loss of appetite resulting in weight loss. A balanced diet can help mitigate those effects
- Lower Risk of Infection – While your immune system will be weakened by radiation treatments, nutrients and vitamins found in whole foods can help get it back to a higher level
Major Food Groups to Eat During Radiation Therapy
Carbohydrates – Unfortunately, fatigue is a common side effect of undergoing radiation therapy and dealing with cancer. Carbohydrates serve as the body’s primary source of energy and will help provide the body with the fuel it needs for physical activity and proper organ function. They’ll also help in supplying vitamins, minerals, and fiber for the body, as well as the calories needed to sustain weight and provide energy. Some examples of GOOD carbohydrates include:
- Starchy Vegetables
- Whole Grains
Proteins – The building blocks of muscle, proteins will help your body repair damaged muscle tissue and maintain a healthy immune system. The body needs protein for growth, and when it doesn’t receive the amount it needs it begins to break down muscle instead. This makes it entirely harder for someone to recover from an illness such as cancer, and also lowers their resistance to infection. In fact, cancer patients specifically require additional protein, especially post-treatment. Proteins can be found in a wide array of different foods and beverages, including:
- Lean Meats
- Certain Dairy Products (Cheese, Greek Yogurt, Milk)
- Nutritional Drinks (Ensure, Boost, etc.)
Fats – While our first instinct may be to classify fats as bad for you in a general sense, they can actual provide some important benefits to those undergoing radiation therapy. Fats are composed of fatty acids and serve as an important source of energy for the body. The body breaks down fats and uses them to store energy, insulate the body tissue, and help transport vitamins through the blood. It’s important to remember that not all fats are good: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are preferred more than trans fats or saturated fats.
Vitamins & Minerals – It’s important while undergoing radiation therapy to eat whole foods that are nutrient dense. These foods will provide the highest amount of vitamins and minerals needed to help your body use the energy found in foods. Because it may become hard to eat a balanced diet while undergoing treatment, your doctor may suggest a multivitamin. Be sure to let your doctor know if you have been taking any vitamins without their prior knowledge. Some vitamins in large does may cause your therapy to become less effective.
Antioxidants – Antioxidants are a powerful ally in the fight against cancer throughout your treatment. Antioxidants are enzymes that absorb and attack free radicals, preventing them from attacking normal cells. These important enzymes can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. However, many oncologists suggest these should be avoided in terms of supplementation during radiation therapy. It’s best to speak with your treatment provider.
Nutritional Safety Concerns and Precautions During Radiation Therapy
It’s of utmost importance to receive the bulk of your vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants through food during the course of your treatment. Additionally, you should use extreme caution if attempting to ingest something through the use of dietary supplements. A few important things to remember:
- Pills and supplements found in stores are not always as advertised. They may not be safe for people undergoing treatment
- The safety of supplements and the effects on the body are not addressed by any FDA rules
- The FDA does not make manufacturers print possible side effects on labels
- Many herbal products are not what they say they are, some don’t even contain the herb they are promoting at all
- Stop taking any products and contact your care team immediately if you’re experiencing any side effects
In addition to maintaining a positive outlook on your diagnosis and strong support from friends, family, and medical professionals, please use these suggestions as a guide to help you successfully navigate your radiation therapy. If you’re a friend or loved one who is reading this, arming yourself with information to be of utmost support; good on you. Thank you for investing your time in research. We hope this list was beneficial to you. Keep in mind that emotional support and love goes a very long way during radiation therapy. To that end, we have also created these helpful cancer care packages to brighten their day. Please consider them as a tangible way to provide support.
While each individual will have their own specific needs and requirements, our goal is that many will find the above as a firm path in the right direction towards achieving a happier lifestyle throughout the course of radiation therapy and cancer treatment in general.