Radiation Therapy

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The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: January 22, 2002

About Radiation Therapy for the Treatment of Breast Cancer

Rena Rowan Breast CenterThis "Helpful Facts" sheet is designed to give you basic information about radiation therapy for breast cancer. More detailed information can be provided by your doctor or nurse. If you have other questions or would like additional information, please talk to your doctor or nurse.

What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy is the type of cancer treatment using beams of high energy waves or streams of particles called radiation to destroy cancer. Radiation damages the material inside cells called DNA. DNA enables cells to reproduce. When cells try to reproduce with damaged DNA, they die. With each additional radiation treatment, more cells die. This makes the tumor shrink.

The goal of radiation therapy is to kills the cancer cells with as little risk as possible to normal cells. Healthy cells targeted by the radiation are affected, but they begin to repair themselves two hours after treatment. The radiation passes through your body and does not remain in you.

Why is radiation necessary after a mastectomy or lumpectomy?
Research has shown that patients who receive radiation after surgery may have a lower rate of recurrence of breast cancer in the breast or chest wall area.

What are the steps in my radiation treatment?

  • " The first step is a consultation visit with a breast radiation oncologist. Radiation oncologists are physicians who are specialize in using radiation therapy in treating cancer. Your radiation oncologist works closely with your other specialists, which may include a surgical and/or medical oncologist. During the consultation, the radiation oncologist will review all of your medical documents, examine your breast, and talk to you about treatment recommendations.
  • " After radiation therapy is selected as a part of your treatment, your radiation therapy team plans, or maps out, the actual treatment. You will be positioned on the treatment table. Molds, casts or other devices may be selected to keep you in the proper position during treatment. In addition, the spot targeted for treatment will be marked, or tatooed. This is done so that the radiation beam will hit the same spot each time. This treatment planning process is also called "simulation" or "set up."
  • " Based upon the information gathered during simulation, your radiation oncologist will develop a plan of action, including the amount of dosage per visit, number of visits, and frequency of visits. Your upcoming treatment visits will then be scheduled.

Why is the treatment for so many days?
Normal cells are able to repair their damaged DNA far better after small doses of radiation. Small doses also minimize side effects. While inconvenient, the long treatment period is the only way to give enough total radiation to destroy the cancer without permanently hurting normal tissue.

How long will each treatment take?
Each treatment takes only a few minutes. Positioning you properly will take another few minutes.

Does the treatment hurt?
No. You cannot feel, smell or see this radiation. This kind of radiation treatment is called "external beam radiation treatment." The equipment used for this kind of treatment is called a linear accelerator. The linear accelerator produces the radiation that can destroy tumors.

Does radiation therapy cause side effects?
Yes. Radiation unavoidably affects healthy tissue. This is what causes side effects. The side effects are manageable, and your doctor and nurse will help you find ways to minimize them.

Tiredness, or fatigue, is a common side effect. Your pre-treatment level of energy will return. Some patients experience the side effects of breast soreness, swelling and reddening of the skin; these usually disappear in 1-2 months. Longer term side effects may include a darkening of the breast skin, change in the sensitivity of the breast skin, a thickening of the breast skin, enlargement of the pores in the skin of the breast, and change in breast size. If you notice that your shoulder feels stiff, ask your doctor or nurse about exercises.

The risk of side effects is usually less than the benefit of killing cancer cells. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about the risks versus benefits of radiation therapy.

What can I do to feel better during treatment?
Some general tips are:

  • " Get plenty of rest and to eat a well-balanced diet during the course of your treatment.
  • " Tell your radiation oncologist about any medications, vitamins or herbal preparations you are taking.
  • " Ask your doctor or nurse about using soaps, lotions, deodorants, medicine, perfume, powder or other substances in the treated area.
  • " Keep the treated part of the body covered and protected from the sun's rays since it will be far more sensitive as a result of treatment.
  • " Wear loose, soft clothing over treated area.
  • " Avoid scratching or rubbing treated skin.
  • " Do not apply heat or cold to area.
  • " Whenever possible, do not wear a bra. If it makes you uncomfortable, wear a soft cotton bra.

Your radiation oncologist and nurse will provide additional advice and can answer any specific questions you may have.


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