Radiation therapy is often used to treat breast cancer. Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams or protons to kill or damage cancer cells. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, our board-certified radiation oncologists throughout Colorado are highly skilled in developing customized treatment plans using radiation therapy for breast cancer to:
- Kill any breast cancer cells that may remain after surgery to prevent recurrence.
- Ease symptoms associated with advanced breast cancer, including pain.
RADIATION THERAPY FOR BREAST CANCER AFTER LUMPECTOMY
Radiation therapy is generally recommended following surgery, called a lumpectomy, to remove just the breast cancer tumor and surrounding tissue. In clinical trials comparing lumpectomy with and without radiation therapy, the addition of radiation therapy resulted in significantly decreased rates of breast cancer recurrence and proved to be as effective as removing the entire breast. This combination of surgery followed by radiation, called breast conserving therapy, is most often used with patients whose tumors are under 4 centimeters in size.
RADIATION THERAPY FOR BREAST CANCER AFTER MASTECTOMY
Radiation therapy after surgery to remove the entire breast (mastectomy) is not often recommended for patients with stage I or II breast cancer. However, it may be recommended for some patients with stage II or III cancer if your physician believes cancer cells may remain in the chest wall or lymph nodes that can cause breast cancer recurrence. This type of radiation is called post-mastectomy radiation therapy and is typically administered five days a week for five to six weeks. You’ll likely have radiation following a mastectomy if:
- Your tumor was larger than 5 centimeters.
- There are signs the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
- The tissue surrounding the tumor contains cancer cells.
At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, all treatment plans — including those that include radiation therapy — are created based on proven medical research and national standards of care. If radiation is part of your treatment plan, you’ll likely begin treatments three to four weeks after surgery.
OTHER USES OF RADIATION FOR BREAST CANCER
Beyond using radiation therapy after a lumpectomy or mastectomy as outlined above, there are special types of cancer that can benefit from radiation treatment. Radiation therapy also may be used for:
- Breast tumors that cannot be surgically removed.
- Inflammatory breast cancer, which is an aggressive form of breast cancer that spreads to the lymph channels of the skin covering the breast. In these cases, radiation is given after a mastectomy.
- Metastatic breast cancer that has spread to other parts of your body and caused a painful tumor to develop.
TYPES OF RADIATION FOR BREAST CANCER
At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, our radiation oncologists typically recommend treating breast cancer using external beam radiation, a process in which a machine is used to aim high-energy beams at the cancer in the breast from outside the body. It is noninvasive and feels similar to getting an X-ray. There are two types of external beam radiation for breast cancer:
- Whole-breast irradiation. This commonly used technique delivers radiation to the entire breast and is typically administered once a day, five days a week, for five to six weeks.
- Partial-breast radiation irradiation. This technique, which may be used in the treatment of early stage cancers, delivers radiation only to the area of the breast most likely to contain cancerous cells. It is generally administered once or twice a day for three to five days.
SIDE EFFECTS OF RADIATION FOR BREAST CANCER
Side effects vary by individual, with most people experiencing mild to moderate symptoms. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, you will have a team of expert radiation therapy physicians, nurses and technicians to help you understand side effects before treatment starts and what you can do to help relieve them.
The most common side effects of radiation for breast cancer are short-term and disappear either immediately or soon after radiation therapy stops. Common side effects include:
- Skin irritation ranging from dry and itchy to sunburn-like redness and tenderness where the radiation was administered
- Discoloration or bruising
- Breast heaviness
Adequate rest along with good nutrition and light physical activity have been proven to help with radiation-related fatigue. Proper skin care and wearing loose-fitting clothing can help ease other side effects of radiation for breast cancer.
A rare long-term side effect that is currently being studied is the impact of radiation therapy for breast cancer on the heart. Adverse effects on the heart are known as cardiotoxicity and can cause or contribute to conditions such as cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease, and heart rhythm problems. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers, we use several methods such as positioning and breathing, which can move the heart away from the breasts, to help reduce radiation exposure to the heart. Our team of experienced radiation oncologists will help you understand any risk, which differs depending on many factors including family history of heart disease, your age, and the type of radiation you will be receiving.
If you are a patient and are experiencing worsening symptoms from your treatment, such as those listed below, our medical professionals are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help. We can assess signs and symptoms, schedule you for an in-office, same or next day appointment and help you avoid a trip to the Urgent Care, ER or unplanned hospitalization. In the event of a life-threatening emergency always call 911. Call us if you are experiencing:
- Chills or fever greater than 100.4
- Burning with urination , frequency, urgency, lower back pain (UTI)
- Productive cough with green, yellow, red, brown sputum
- Unmanaged diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting
- Unmanaged pain
- Swelling, redness and pain on extremities
- Shortness of breath/chest pain
- Dizziness with changing position or lightheadedness
- Dark urine, less urine than normal, thirst, dry mouth (dehydration)
- Mouth sores, difficulty swallowing, frequent or sever heartburn
- Severe fatigue