Radiation for Breast Cancer

Radiation for Cancer

Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses beams of intense energy to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy most often gets its power from x-rays, but the power may also come from protons or other types of energy.

Radiation is one of the most common treatments for cancer. Radiation therapy for cancer can be given alone or used in combination with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy.

How Radiation for Cancer is Given

There are three primary ways to deliver radiation for cancer:

  • External radiation. Also known as external beam radiation, this uses a machine that directs high-energy rays from outside the body into the tumor.
  • Internal radiation. Also known as brachytherapy, this type of radiation therapy uses a radiation source that’s usually sealed in an implant, which is then placed very close to or inside the tumor. In addition to minimizing the dose of radiation to surrounding healthy tissue, internal radiation therapy allows a higher dose of radiation in a smaller area.
  • Systemic radiation. Also known as radiopharmaceuticals, this type of radiation uses radioactive drugs which are put into a vein or given by mouth.

The type of radiation used depends on type and location of the cancer.

Radiation for Breast Cancer

Some women with breast cancer will need radiation, often in addition to other treatments. The need for radiation will depend on the type of surgery performed, the patient’s age and whether the breast cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body.

Radiation for breast cancer may be used:

  • After breast-conserving surgery, to help lower the likelihood that the cancer will return in the breast or nearby lymph nodes
  • After a mastectomy, especially if the cancer was larger than five centimeters, or if cancer is found in the lymph nodes
  • If cancer has spread to other parts of the body

Either external or internal radiation may be used for breast cancer.

Side Effects of Radiation for Breast Cancer

Early side effects of external radiation for breast cancer may include:

  • Swelling and heaviness in the breast
  • Skin changes in the treated area
  • Fatigue

Long-term side effects of external radiation for breast cancer may include:

  • Change in the size and firmness of the breast
  • Problems breastfeeding
  • Damage to nerves in the arm, which can lead to numbness, pain and weakness in the shoulder, arm and hand
  • Rib fracture
  • Development of a rare cancer called an angiosarcoma

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