Risk for Breast Cancer after Treatment for Childhood Cancer

Author: Dava Szalda, MD MSHP
Last Reviewed: May 2, 2019

What’s the risk? 

Breast cancer risk can be increased after radiation therapy that includes the anterior chest wall, even in patients who have not yet developed breasts. Having radiation to the chest puts a woman at higher risk of developing breast cancer than women of the same age group. Also, the higher the dose of radiation the greater the risk. 

Modern therapy and radiation techniques have limited the amount of radiation that normal tissues receive, so over time the risk may be less than that observed in current adult survivors of childhood cancer.

When a risk is present, the increased risk of breast cancer usually does not occur until the mid-20s and/or at least 8 years after radiation therapy.

Symptoms/When to Call

Any woman who has a history of radiation treatment involving the chest should be aware of what their normal breast tissue feels like and alert their medical team if they notice a new lump or bump for them.

Prevention and Treatment

There are recommendations for early (earlier than the general population) screening in women who have had chest radiation in childhood. The screening depends on your field and dose of radiation so it is important to talk to your medical team or a specialized survivorship center to understand what your screening plan should be. When breast cancer screening does begin early, it usually begins in the mid-20s or 8 years after radiation exposure (whichever occurs later).

General cancer prevention strategies should also be used including healthy diet, physical activity, avoidance of tobacco use and knowing your family history of cancer.

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