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Testicular Cancer

Side effects of radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is sometimes used to treat testicular cancer (see 'Radiotherapy'). A few men experience very mild or no side effects of radiotherapy, and were able to continue their normal activities and work throughout their treatment (see 'Work'). 

Some men simply felt a bit tired. For example, one man interviewed here, never felt sick, and cycled 20 miles each way for his radiotherapy, refusing the offer of transport.

 

Describes cycling to and from radiotherapy and says that he got a little tired on the way home...

Describes cycling to and from radiotherapy and says that he got a little tired on the way home...

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 52
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And did you have any side-effects of the radiotherapy?

Yeah I got a bit tired, while I was cycling home, which was about twenty miles, and there was this one hill that was sort of half way, that I used to be able to sort of shoot up you know sort of, and towards the end of the treatment I found that I couldn't cycle up the hill. I'd sort of just go and collapse in a field and have a kip for half an hour or something. That was all really, I just got a bit tired. And I don't think that lasted for very long, you know, after the treatment.

Did you feel sick at all?

No, not really, no nothing.

Were you given any special tablets to help with any feelings of sickness?

No I don't think so, they were always saying to me sort of 'Are you sure you want to cycle back,' and things like that, because it was, they'd said that they'd arrange transport and things but I suppose I was fortunate that the weather was on my side you know every day. It would have been depressing I suppose if you were cycling in the rain every day so you know if you're ever ill try to be ill sort of when its fine.

Most men, however, experienced more severe side effects, especially near to the end of the radiotherapy, and sometimes for a while afterwards. Many felt extremely tired, and some felt irritable and bad-tempered.

 

Recalls that his short temper, sickness and fatigue got progressively worse during the radiotherapy.

Recalls that his short temper, sickness and fatigue got progressively worse during the radiotherapy.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 52
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Well, the side-effects took a couple of times to work. I started off feeling a little bit sick and tired which progressively got worse. The sickness, they gave me, some tablets that they gave me I couldn't accept because I was, I was feeling ill with them. And they took me off those and gave me some others, which worked, which worked better. And I was starting to feel very tired and irritable, I was very short tempered, mainly with the children and that. Towards the end of the treatment I was really bad tempered, I was very, very tired. In fact one day I drove to the hospital, my appointment was at 10 o clock, I got there at 20 past 9 because of the parking problems, and I fell asleep in the car park. And it was only somebody slamming a car door that woke up me, I was that tired. Really I should not have driven but I was rather stupid to do that.

Were you working still at that stage?

No I wasn't working, I'd had six weeks off work.
 

Some men told us they had felt nauseous, lost their appetite, lost their sense of taste, had diarrhoea, suffered heartburn, or were actually sick after each treatment. One man, treated in 1987, was violently sick after his first treatment. He complained that no one had warned him that this might happen.

 

Describes the unexpected sickness he suffered after his radiotherapy.

Describes the unexpected sickness he suffered after his radiotherapy.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 34
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Day one, I came out of there [radiotherapy], and I said, 'What happens now?. And they said, 'Well you go home'. And I said "Are there any side-effects?" "No, no, no, no side-effects whatsoever." I said "Nothing?" "No, no you'll be fine." So I thought okay this is kind of a good deal. I went home, I think I probably had a cup of tea and then I began to feel very, very ill, and then I began to feel even worse and then I began to throw up and I couldn't stop throwing up. And I had never in my entire life felt as ill as I did that evening. And there was nobody there in my flat and I was thinking, they told me at the hospital I would be fine.

And I had to ring the GP and I had to get somebody out to me because I was by now on the floor, because I was, number one I was emotionally drained, and number two I was physically drained because I was just throwing up so much. And I explained to the guy who came, and it wasn't my regular GP, but I explained to him what the, what had happened to me today and he said, "Well didn't they give you any tablets or didn't they explain?" And I said, "No, no they told me it would be fine." And he said "Well, you know that really wasn't on and they should've explained that because the radiotherapy cuts through some good tissue as well as bad if there is any bad there, and that predominantly it cuts across your stomach." And you know that can have a devastating effect, which nobody had told me about. So of course the next day I was like "Why didn't you tell me?" "Well the attitude that we have is that some people don't get affected so we don't want to scare people and so we just don't say anything the first day and then if somebody comes in the next day sick we can give them some tablets for it." Which I didn't think was really a particularly good way to handle it. So that was the first big trauma really.
 

Another man recalled that he has been horribly sick after the first treatment. When he told the radiotherapists what had happened they told him that he shouldn't have eaten a big meal before his treatment. He was sick again the next day, even though he hadn't eaten anything. Tablets given to him by the staff didn't help. Other anti-sickness tablets prescribed by the GP helped a bit, but he still felt disorientated, as though he had sunstroke. Eventually the consultant prescribed some 'very strong' tablets, which, the consultant told him, cost £19 a tablet. These tablets 'worked' very well. (Today, at many hospitals, these strong anti-sickness pills are given to men routinely).

 

Describes the terrible sickness he suffered after radiotherapy.

Describes the terrible sickness he suffered after radiotherapy.

Age at interview: 36
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 29
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And I drove home and sort of like had my evening meal as I usually would and, but all the time I was starting to feel different, it's very difficult. It's kind of like sunstroke, started to feel a little bit heady, and tired and a little bit off sorts really. And that got progressively worse until about 8 o clock when I was starting to think that I was going to vomit and so I headed off to bed at that point. And then I, I was lying in bed not feeling too good at all and then I started vomiting and that just carried on all evening.

Oh dear.

And it got that bad in the end I actually ended up sitting on the hallway outside the toilet because it was no point in going back to bed because I'd be back there within a few minutes. So I just sat outside the toilet (laughs) and tried to get some, tried to calm myself down and relax a little. That lasted for a few hours until obviously I'd got rid of everything and I had a night's sleep. I felt absolutely dreadful in the morning and didn't go into work because I really didn't feel well enough to go. I'd got another treatment again the next day and so I went in, went again, went along again in the late afternoon, told the staff what had happened the previous night and they said "Oh you shouldn't have had a meal." I said "Well nobody told me." I mean it probably would've been a good idea not to eat something but just don't think about that sort of think you know. You're told that it doesn't affect you and that you'll be able to carry on as normal.

When are you supposed to eat then?

Well they sort of said probably not, a big meal is not a good idea you know. 
 

This man also suffered severe indigestion, even after the treatment had finished. He partially solved this problem by eating very small amounts of food whenever he was hungry. Another man remembered that while having radiotherapy he could only eat bland food, like rice, and had to avoid spicy food.

 

Describes the indigestion he suffered as a long-term effect of radiotherapy.

Describes the indigestion he suffered as a long-term effect of radiotherapy.

Age at interview: 36
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 29
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Has it left you with any long-term affects?

I had a lot of problems after the treatment, with food. To start with I couldn't eat very much at all, I suppose my stomach had shrunk with not taking in very much, I don't know, but I could only eat small quantities of food. And I was getting very severe indigestion afterwards, every time I ate. If I ate I got indigestion, if I didn't eat I got indigestion

Oh dear.

And I found that if I eat, if I eat food in small quantities, but very regular, rather than sticking to meal times, I was eating when I was hungry, but very small amounts that seemed to help. You basically listen to what your body is saying, I think is what it was about. And that seemed to help but when you finish the treatment you feel very tired as I said before and, but as soon as they stop administering the treatment within a couple of days you're feeling a lot better. And the recovery is quite, quite dramatic, you suddenly, you feel as if you're taking off you know it's not like a, it's not like a bug or something that you've had where it may lower you, you know knock you down for a few, for a while and still feel awful afterwards. As soon as I stop having the treatment it was an improvement.

That's good.

And you seemed to progress brilliantly. But then I got to a point where it didn't seem to get any better, I'd sort of like reached a plateau and I was getting problems with the, you know with the indigestion and that and it was pretty bad actually. Everything I ate seemed to give me problems, I couldn't work out what to eat, what not to eat and you know all the usual things that give you indigestion did and everything that they say eat you know gave me indigestion as well, so it was a bit of a nightmare.
 

One man suggested that symptoms were similar to those he suffered with irritable bowel syndrome. 

Feelings of nausea, and other side effects, sometimes made men we interviewed feel quite miserable, and one suggested that he had almost succumbed to clinical depression (note that some patients may feel depressed because of the diagnosis itself, rather than the radiotherapy).

 

Explains that when he felt sick during his radiotherapy he felt very depressed.

Explains that when he felt sick during his radiotherapy he felt very depressed.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 37
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It was, oh, it [sickness] was awful, I just, I really didn't cope too well with it. And I'm always like a, my glass is always half full, never half empty and this, this was the closest thing that I would say that I had ever come to a clinical depression. It was a bad time. A very bad time. I couldn't get out of this rut even though my mind knew it was OK this feeling just made you feel really awful. 

But this overwhelming feeling of feeling sick and down, I felt so down and I, you try and explain but you can't explain to people why you're feeling so depressed over something that you cannot see affecting you, you just feel the results of it and it is a bit sad. But luckily the Mrs, the wife was uh, well, told me off in the right time and listened in the right time and you know sometimes its one of those little battles sometimes you have to, depending on how badly you're affected by the, the radiotherapy. It's something that you have to deal with because you're the only one feeling that experience, or experiencing that feeling I should say. I would…

Did you get any other side-effects apart from this feeling of depression and sickness?

No, that was it, it was the depression that was the most all consuming because I'm not like that, I enjoy life, I've always enjoyed life and before I went for the radiotherapy I thought well once this is all out the way, brilliant.

Men may temporarily lose some hair within the treatment area. One man recalled that he had lost hair from his back and his stomach as the result of radiotherapy.

A few men said that they suffered some skin sensitivity. A man treated in 1967 suffered skin burns after experimental, high doses of radiotherapy, and a man treated more recently, who had 20 treatments, said that he received an oblong burn mark on his back, which disappeared after a few months. (Note that in the 1960's and 1970's the doses of radiotherapy were higher than they are today, and today men usually have 10 treatments rather than 20.)

 

Describes a burn mark he suffered temporarily as the result of radiotherapy.

Describes a burn mark he suffered temporarily as the result of radiotherapy.

Age at interview: 39
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 36
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And the only thing it done it left like er an oblong iron mark, a burn mark on my back, which has now gone but it's like all through the radiotherapy. Because I had 20 sessions of it, which was 4 weeks you know, it's just like a Monday to Friday job. But it actually leaves like where you're laid on the plate, with the radiotherapy going through you it left like a square oblong mark along my back which stayed there all through the summer as well. So it just looked like I had an odd suntan. But apart from that I mean I never felt sick once. They give you these tablets and they said you know "Take these tablets if you feel sick after the radiotherapy." Well I never felt nothing, it was just a case of taking your shirt off, laying on the table and letting the machine do the work. And that was it, you don't feel nothing, you just sit there and you basically get bored for 20 minutes.

So this burn mark did go after the first summer?

Yeah after the first summer it had gone. I mean I, through the summer I'm always walking about with no shirt on anyway so I think like where I caught the sun as well on top of this and it's all merged in so now you wouldn't even know it was there.
 

One man recalled that he had been told not to sunbathe. Another man mentioned that he didn't like the tattoo marks that had been left on his skin (see 'Radiotherapy').

Occasionally, radiotherapy can cause more serious side effects. One man thought that his treatment had caused adhesions, and that his large intestine had been 'welded' to his stomach. Another suffered a bowel obstruction due to the radiotherapy, and had to have a temporary ileostomy. However, he was treated in 1973, when doses of radiotherapy were much higher than they are today. An ileostomy is a surgical procedure in which the ileum (part of the small bowel) is brought out onto the abdomen so that the bowel movements can be collected in a bag worn over the opening or stoma.

 

Describes a long term side effect of radiotherapy and his experience of an ileostomy.

Describes a long term side effect of radiotherapy and his experience of an ileostomy.

Age at interview: 51
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 23
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And then did you say you had to have more, another operation or

Yes I had another operation. What happened my stomach started to swell up and I couldn't go to the toilet and I kept being sick, this was in 1986. And they couldn't find anything wrong, they couldn't find anything wrong with me. I was in hospital for quite a while having tests, trying to find out what was wrong with me. They couldn't find, I had barium meals and all sorts of things to find out what was blocking my stomach up. And then I had an operation and they found that my bowel was glued together from the radiotherapy treatment and I had quite a bit of that removed.

That was the long-term affect of having had that radiotherapy in 1973?

Yeah, yeah, so in 1986, that's when I went into hospital to have that. I did have a colostomy bag for, from October to the Easter, the following Easter and then they reversed the operation.

Can you tell us a little bit about having the colostomy bag?

Horrible, nasty things. I didn't have a complete colostomy, I had an ileostomy which unfortunately I had all sorts of problems with the bag kept falling off and everything else. I found it unhygienic, er it was probably, and my wife said it was probably one of the worst parts of out marriage. I'd sit there and all I could do was keep touching the bag to see if it was falling off or anything like that.

For those that don't understand what an ileostomy is would you mind explaining?

Well it's, rather than the whole stomach coming out, the bowel coming out of your body it's only part of it, and it's only very small. The problem with mine was that it was so badly bruised that it kept shrinking and going back inside so occasionally the bag did fall off when I was out or something like that. I didn't work obviously for, I went into hospital in October to have the operation and I came out on Christmas Eve, I was in hospital for all that time. I lost a lot of weight, I went down to about 8 stone.
 

Last reviewed December 2017.
Last updated December 2017.

 
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