Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

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Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is the use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. If you have external radiotherapy, the most common radiation approach, the radiation will be aimed directly at your tumor or, if it’s after surgery, at the whole breast.

Isn’t the Radiation Dangerous?

Radiation kills healthy cells along with cancer cells, so it is hard on your body, though great care is taken to ensure minimal exposure of your heart or lungs. The side effects are generally temporary and confined to the breast. Some women worry that radiation can increase their chances of developing other cancers, but the therapy has been shown to be effective enough that its benefits outweigh that risk. Because radiation may be harmful to a fetus, pregnant women can’t receive the treatment. Radiation also is not given to women who have certain connective tissue diseases or those who’ve received previous radiation therapy to the chest or breast area, such as women with Hodgkin’s disease.

Who Is a Candidate for Radiotherapy?

After a lumpectomy, you’re likely to get radiation treatments. Depending on the size and extent of the cancer, radiation therapy may target your breast, your chest wall, or the area of your underarm where your lymph nodes are. You may also have radiation treatments before surgery, to shrink a tumor that will be removed. In most cases you won’t need radiation following a mastectomy. However, you might need it if your tumor is large, the surgeon took a small margin of tissue from around the tumor, or if the cancer metastasized to the lymph nodes under your armpit. Depending on what type of surgery you’ve had, you may be given chemotherapy or hormone therapy before, during, or after your radiation treatment. Sometimes radiation and chemo work better together than either would alone.

For women whose breast cancer has metastasized to other areas, radiation can be used to relieve pain, most commonly for bone metastases (cancer that has spread to the bone). The side effects depend on what part of the body is being treated. A course of radiation for pain control usually involves daily treatment for one to four weeks and can provide enormous pain relief.

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