October 25, 2023

Understanding Radiation Therapy For Breast Cancer

Understanding Radiation Therapy For Breast Cancer

Radiation therapy is an effective and commonly used method included in a complete breast cancer treatment plan. You may also hear of radiation therapy, referred to as radiotherapy.

It’s most often used after breast-conserving surgery to be sure all cancer cells in the area are destroyed. However, there are other reasons radiation is used to treat breast cancer There is also more than one way it can be delivered. What’s right for each person depends on their specific needs and treatment goals.

What are the Types of Radiation Therapy Used for Breast Cancer?

There are two main types of radiation therapy that are used for breast cancer treatment: external beam radiation and internal radiation therapy (or brachytherapy).

The type of radiation therapy that your oncologist recommends will depend on several factors, including:

External Beam Radiation Therapy Treatment for Breast Cancer

External beam radiation is the most common type of radiation therapy used for treating breast cancer. External beam radiation directs the high energy beams from outside of your body using a machine called a linear accelerator. This therapy uses 3D imaging to precisely target where the cancer is located in your breast so that the beams are directed only to that specific area. Since the radiation beams can conform to the shape of the tumor, it helps prevent damage to the healthy surrounding tissues.

External beam radiation therapy is given five days a week for several weeks. The specific length of time will depend on the goals of treatment, the size of the treatment area, and whether the oncologists are able to use hypofractionated radiation therapy.

Hypofractionated radiation therapy delivers a higher dose during each session, reducing the total number of weeks that treatment is required. The side effects usually are not worsened by delivering more radiation at each session.

For many patients, hypofractionated treatments can be completed in 4-5 weeks compared to 6-8 weeks.

Internal Radiation Therapy Treatment for Breast Cancer

Internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy, works by delivering the radiation from the inside of the body. High-dose-rate (HDR) brachytherapy is commonly used as the entire treatment or as part of the treatment plan for early-stage breast cancer. HDR brachytherapy involves a shorter treatment process, usually 3-5 days, but it is usually only recommended when breast tumors are small and have been found early.

Internal radiation therapy is administered by having a small tube placed in the breast. Radioactive seeds are placed in these tubes for several minutes during each treatment session. These seeds give off radioactive energy that is directed at the specific area in the breast where cancer cells are found. Sometimes, the seeds are also used to target lymph nodes if the cancer has spread to these areas as well. After all treatment sessions are complete, the small tube or applicator will be removed.

How is Radiation Therapy Used for Breast Cancer?

The timing of radiation therapy in a breast cancer treatment varies based on the patient’s specific situation. It may be recommended that you get radiation before getting surgery, after surgery, or for treatment of metastatic breast cancer that has developed in other areas of the body besides the breast.

Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer After Surgery

The most common way radiation therapy is used is to treat the surgical site where the breast cancer was removed in a lumpectomy procedure. The goal of the radiation treatment is to destroy any cancer cells that can’t be seen but may have been left behind during surgery. By combining surgery and radiation therapy, there is a lower likelihood of the cancer recurring later.

Mastectomies involve the removal of all breast tissue, so these patients usually do not require radiation afterward unless there is a need to deliver radiation to the lymph node area.

External beam radiation therapy is commonly used for all stages of breast cancer patients who have had breast-conserving surgery. HDR brachytherapy may be used after surgery if the cancer was found at an early stage (stage 1 or possibly possibly 2).

Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer Before Surgery

Sometimes, radiation therapy is recommended before breast cancer surgery since it can help to shrink the size of the tumor, making surgery easier and more effective. This is also referred to as neoadjuvant therapy – or treatment before surgery. Radiation before breast cancer surgery also helps lower the risk of cancer spreading during surgery, reduces the amount of tissue that needs to be removed, and helps to reduce swelling and discomfort that comes with surgery.

Radiation as Treatment for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer is that which has spread beyond the breast tissue to other parts of the body. If you have metastatic breast cancer, radiation therapy may be recommended to help shrink tumors throughout the body to help minimize any pain you’re experiencing.

Radiation Only for Early-Stage Breast Cancer

In some cases, when breast cancer is found in stage 1, it’s possible to treat it only with radiation therapy. The goal is to kill the cancer cells in that area of the breast without removing an area of the breast.

What to Expect During Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer Treatment

Radiation therapy usually requires frequent visits over the course of several weeks. You will quickly feel familiarized with the process, but your first visit may feel a little nerve-wracking. Because of the daily visits each week, it’s a good idea to find a radiation oncology team that is close to your home or work. Each session, after your initial planning session, lasts only 15-45 minutes, so convenience is key.

Your first visit for external beam radiation therapy will not typically involve delivering radiation. It’s more of a planning session. A CT scan or MRI will be needed to pinpoint the precise location, shape, and size of the tumor or the area where the tumor was located. The radiation oncologist and other radiation team members will use this to plan your treatment, dosage, angle of delivery, etc.

You’re also likely to need to lie down on the table of the linear accelerator so they can determine the exact position you need to be in every time you come for treatment. They make some small marks on your skin so they can find the same spot each time you come in.

The video below explains what you can expect during radiation treatment.


Are there Side Effects of Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer Treatment?

As with any cancer treatment, radiation therapy can cause certain side effects. Side effects may be short-term or long-term.

Some common examples of short-term side effects from radiation therapy include:

  • Tiredness or fatigue

  • Discomfort and swelling in the treatment area

  • Skin sensitivity, such as irritation or redness similar to a sunburn

  • Fluid collection in and around the breast

Some uncommon long-term side effects that can occur as a result of radiation therapy for breast cancer include:

  • Heart or lung issues

  • Damage to the fatty tissue of the breast

  • Spider veins

Personalized Breast Cancer Treatment Including the Latest in Radiation Therapy in the South Chicago Suburbs

At Affiliated Oncologists, we are able to provide our patients with advanced cancer care and personalized treatment approaches, including radiation oncology and medical oncology therapies. Our breast cancer specialists are skilled in staging breast cancers and determining the best treatment regimen for each unique patient.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a type of breast cancer and are seeking treatment in the South Chicago suburbs, the oncologists and staff at Affiliated Oncologists are here to support you every step of the way. We serve the suburbs south of Chicago, including Hazel Crest, Mokena, Oak Lawn, and Palos Heights, making it convenient for local residents to access their cancer treatments.


Categories: Breast Cancer