Understanding Breast Cancer Radiation Therapy

UMC Cancer Center TPP

After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, your care team will help you understand unfamiliar topics and walk you through treatment options. Depending on the diagnosis, radiation therapy may be one of these options.

When people hear radiation therapy, they may be concerned. But radiation therapy is safe and effective. Another advantage is that many people only feel side effects in the treated area.

What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to attack and destroy cancer cells. People with breast cancer may receive radiation treatment:

  • After surgery: Following a mastectomy or breast-conserving surgery, radiation therapy can destroy remaining cancer cells.
  • For metastatic cancer: Radiation therapy can help treat cancer that has spread beyond the breast.

External beam radiation

During external beam radiation therapy, you lie on a table. A radiation machine sends high-energy rays to your body to destroy the cancer cells.

Before the treatment, you have a radiation therapy planning session. You undergo a CT scan so your care team can mold the radiation beam to the shape of the tumor. This way, the radiation targets the tumor precisely, and there’s minimal radiation exposure to the rest of your body.

At the planning session, the radiation oncologist also maps the strength and placement of the beams. Then, treatment can begin. The number of sessions you need depends on your treatment plan. Radiation therapy sessions are typically outpatient, so you go home after treatment.

There are different forms of external beam radiation, based on the tumor size and location:

  • Whole breast radiation therapy: The entire breast receives treatment.
  • Accelerated partial breast irradiation (APBI): This treatment is a newer form of radiation therapy. It involves using a larger dose one time, using specialized technology or stronger beams.
  • Chest wall radiation therapy: Before any treatment, you will have a biopsy. If the biopsy shows that cancer hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes, your doctor may recommend a mastectomy combined with chest wall radiation therapy.
  • Lymph node radiation therapy: If cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, your doctor may recommend this type of radiation therapy.

Breast brachytherapy is internal radiation. Doctors often use brachytherapy to treat early-stage breast cancers that have not metastasized. You typically have this therapy after surgery to remove cancer. Sometimes, you may have it before surgery to shrink the tumor and make it easier to remove.

Your doctor places a device containing radioactive seeds or pellets near the surgery site. The radioactive material destroys cancer cells that may have escaped removal. This targeted treatment destroys the cancer cells without damaging nearby tissues.

Side effects of radiation treatment
You may have side effects after radiation therapy. Your care team will help you manage them so you feel comfortable.

The most common side effects include:

  • Swelling
  • Skin changes that include sensitivity, dryness or thickening of the breast tissue
  • Fatigue, or low energy

If radiation therapy is part of your breast cancer treatment plan, it can help to spend some time researching radiation treatments. Becoming familiar with the terms empowers you to understand and discuss all of your options.

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