Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the part of the body that is treated. Radiation therapy may be used after surgery to destroy breast cancer cells that remain in the area.
Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. Some women receive both types:
- External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. You will go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for 4 to 6 weeks. External radiation is the most common type used for breast cancer.
- Internal radiation therapy (implant radiation therapy or brachytherapy): The doctor places one or more thin tubes inside the breast through a tiny incision. A radioactive substance is loaded into the tube. The treatment session may last for a few minutes, and the substance is removed. When it's removed, no radioactivity remains in your body. Internal radiation therapy may be repeated every day for a week.
Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation. It's common for the skin in the treated area to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Your breast may feel heavy and tight. Internal radiation therapy may make your breast look red or bruised. These problems usually go away over time.
Bras and tight clothes 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. 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. After treatment is over, the skin will slowly heal. However, there may be a lasting change in the color of your skin.
You're 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 active, unless it leads to pain or other problems.
You may wish to discuss with your doctor the possible long-term effects of radiation therapy. For example, radiation therapy to the chest may harm the lung or heart. Also, it can change the size of your breast and the way it looks. If any of these problems occur, your health care team can tell you how to manage them.
You may want to ask your doctor these questions before having radiation therapy:
- Which type of radiation therapy can I consider? Are both types an option for me?
- When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatments?
- How will I feel during treatment? Will I need to stay in the hospital? Will I be able to drive myself to and from treatment?
- What can I do to take care of myself before, during, and after treatment?
- How will we know the treatment is working?
- Will treatment harm my skin?
- How will my chest look afterward?
- Are there any lasting effects?
- What is the chance that the cancer will come back in my breast?
- How often will I need checkups?