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Everything You Need to Know About Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

The majority of breast cancer patients will receive radiation therapy. Radiation oncologist Dr. Geraldine Jacobson answers questions about this common treatment approach for people with breast cancer.

Dr. Geraldine Jacobson MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO

Radiation Oncologist, Professor and Chair, West Virginia University Department of Radiation Oncology

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is the use of specialized x-rays to kill cancer cells by destroying their ability to multiply. Radiation therapy for breast cancer involves delivering focused radiation to the breast or chest wall, and sometimes the lymph nodes, to eliminate cancer cells that are not removed by surgery. Radiation oncologists are highly trained cancer specialists who prescribe and oversee these treatments.

Why would someone receive radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Radiation after mastectomy or lumpectomy reduces the risk of the cancer coming back. Radiation may be combined with other therapies to increase the chance of cure or prevent a new breast cancer from developing. The cure rate for breast cancer is improved when patients who need radiation therapy receive it.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Radiation therapy usually involves daily treatments over the span of a few weeks. During and after treatment, patients are under the care and attention of a specialized team of radiation oncology doctors, therapists, and nurses who are trained to help them with their cancer and the side effects that may come from treatment.

As with any cancer treatment, the benefits of therapy come with some risks. Side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer can be bothersome, but they also are manageable and temporary, typically going away shortly after radiation treatment ends.

The most common side effects are feeling tired and having less energy during treatment. Skin reactions during radiation therapy are common, but they are mild for most patients and are managed by the radiation oncology team. They usually resolve within weeks of completing radiation.

What are some advances in radiation therapy for people with breast cancer?

Our current approach to breast cancer treatment is based on patient factors and the type and extent of the cancer. Specialists work together to plan the best course of treatment that may include some combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.

  • Radiation treatments today are personalized and selected to provide the best outcome with the least side effects.
  • Multiple clinical trials and decades of experience have shown that lumpectomy followed by radiation is an alternative to mastectomy for patients with early breast cancer.
  • Advances in treatment technology allow radiation oncologists to treat patients more precisely and protect healthy organs from radiation.
  • The standard of care for whole breast radiation therapy has been reduced from 5-6 weeks to 3-4 weeks, saving time for patients. 
  • An approach called partial breast irradiation is appropriate for some patients with the potential benefit of shorter treatment times and less radiation to healthy tissues.

Patients should discuss the best course of treatment and potential benefits and risks with their radiation oncologist. Breast cancer is treatable and curable — studies show that more than 80 percent of patients diagnosed with this cancer live ten years or more after treatment.

Any advice for people undergoing radiation therapy?

Get plenty of rest during treatment. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. If you’re having trouble sleeping or eating, tell your doctor or nurse.

Treat the skin exposed to radiation with special care. Protect the treated area from the sun, avoid hot or cold packs, only use lotions and ointments after checking with your doctor or nurse, and clean the area with warm water and mild soap.

Coping with the stress of a cancer diagnosis is often tough. It may help to seek out guidance from support groups and friends. Stay active. Multiple studies suggest that physical activity is beneficial for breast cancer patients.

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