Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Most women receive radiation therapy after breast-sparing surgery. Some women receive radiation therapy after a mastectomy. Treatment depends on the size of the tumor and other factors. The radiation destroys breast cancer cells that may remain in the area.
Some women have radiation therapy before surgery to destroy cancer cells and shrink the tumor. Doctors use this approach when the tumor is large or may be difficult to remove. Some women also have chemotherapy or hormone therapy before surgery.
Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. Some women receive both types:
- External radiation The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. Most women go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for several weeks.
- Internal radiation (implant radiation) Thin plastic tubes (implants) that hold a radioactive substance are put directly in the breast. The implants stay in place for several days, during which time a woman remains in the hospital. Doctors remove the implants before discharge.
Potential side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation and the part of your body that is treated.
It is common for the skin in the treated area to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Your breast may feel heavy and tight. These problems will go away over time. Toward the end of treatment, your skin may become moist and "weepy." Exposing this area to air as much as possible can help the skin heal.
Bras and some other types of clothing may rub your skin and cause soreness. You may want to wear loose-fitting cotton clothes during this time. Gentle skin care also is important. You should check with your doctor before using any deodorants, lotions, or creams on the treated area. These effects of radiation therapy on the skin will go away. The area gradually heals once treatment is completed. However, there may be a lasting change in the color of your skin.
You are likely to become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay as active as they can.
Although the side effects of radiation therapy can be distressing, they're usually treatable.