What to Expect from Radiation Treatment for Breast Cancer

What to Expect from Radiation Treatment for Breast Cancer

Radiation treatment is often given after surgery in order to try to kill off any cancer cells the surgery might have missed. A woman who has had a lumpectomy, or breast sparing surgery, will stand a better chance of remaining cancer-free with some radiation. A woman who has had a large tumor or an invasive one that moved beyond the breast into the chest would benefit from radiation to kill off cells that the surgery couldn’t get.

Radiation therapy will usually start about 3 to 4 weeks after you have had surgery.

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, uses X-rays to kill cancer cells. The rays will be highly targeted and focused in order to maximize the dose in the area of concern and minimize the dose to healthy areas. Most women are given radiation once a day, 5 days a week, for 3 to 6 weeks. The treatment usually only takes a few minutes, and then you can resume normal activities if you feel up to it. Some people get tired easily after their treatments.

Depending on the number of treatments your doctor recommends, you might be given a tattoo as a sort of ‘X marks the spot’ so that any technician who give you your radiotherapy during the course of your treatment will know exactly where to administer it.

Internal radiation therapy

Some women opt for internal radiation, called brachytherapy, in which small, radioactive ‘seeds’ are implanted under the skin near the site of the tumor. This is a good option for women who are concerned about large amounts of radiation.

The cons of radiotherapy

The benefit is that radiotherapy kills cancer cells. The cons are that it affects healthy cells as well. This can lead to various side effects. Radiation can also damage the skin. Side effects of radiation to look out for include:

  • Skin irritation at the targeted area, which may resemble mild to bad sunburn, with redness, peeling and soreness
  • Dry, tender, or itchy skin
  • Breast heaviness
  • Discoloration of the skin
  • A bruised or mottled appearance to the breast
  • Swelling
  • General fatigue, that is, tiredness even when you have been resting, and upon any exertion
  • A form of pneumonia in the lung, which should go away after the treatments are finished

Radiation can be a difficult experience, but your doctor will be able to recommend creams and various strategies for helping you deal with the side effects so you can have a good outcome.


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