The process of using high-powered X-rays to kill cancer cells is called Radiation therapy. It’s a type of targeted therapy often used in breast cancer treatment. The radiation may be targeted at the tumor site, the lymph nodes, or the chest wall. It tries to hinder cancer from spreading, or decrease the risk of recurrence.
External radiation treatment is normally given five times weekly, for five to seven weeks. The accelerated breast irradiation, which is a latest approach, gives larger doses of radiation over three weeks. Most people tolerate radiation therapy well.
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Your may be subjected to internal radiation (brachytherapy), where tiny pieces of radioactive material are placed around the tumor site. Total treatment time can vary from hours to about a week. There are fewer short-term side effects with targeted therapy, and it spares healthy tissue.
Short-Term Side Effects of Breast Cancer Radiation
The most common side effect of radiation therapy is skin irritation in the treated area. After the first few treatments, your skin may become sensitive and start to turn pink. It may eventually start to look and feel like a sunburn, with blistering, itching, or peeling. Soreness and inflammation are common. Any irritation may exacerbate as treatment continues. You can expect it to get better in the weeks after your final treatment.
You might lose hair in your underarm, if the radiation was targeted to your armpit area. You might also sweat less under that arm. These side effects are generally temporary.
A woman undergoing radiation therapy may experience fatigue as the weeks pass. Fatigue almost always begins to improve within a few weeks of the last treatment.
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Because it’s administered daily over many weeks, conventional external beam radiation therapy is a huge time commitment. The process can affect with work and family responsibilities, especially if you lack transportation or don’t live close to a treatment facility.
You should plan on being there for 30 minutes to an hour, even though the actual treatment only takes about 10 minutes. Getting in position takes time and precision. The hectic daily schedule may cause you emotional distraught, anxiety, and stress.
Long-Term Side Effects
Radiation is targeted to a precise area of your body, so your radiation team may spend a lot of time on “marking” before your first treatment.
They’ll take careful measurements to check and verify that the radiation will strike the right area. Then they’ll make small ink marks on your skin to use as a guide for future treatments. These marks are permanently tattooed onto your skin.
If your skin gets darker at the radiation site, it could take months or years for skin to return to normal color. In some cases, minor discoloration may be permanent, or skin may appear thicker or firmer. Skin sensitivity or tenderness can sometimes last for months.
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Radiation can cause some nerve damage resulting in numbness and pain. Radiation therapy can limit your reconstruction options or your ability to breastfeed. You should discuss these risks with your doctor before you begin treatment.
Rare Side Effects
If you had lymph nodes removed before getting radiation, you’re at increased risk of a blockage of the lymph system (lymphedema). This can cause swelling of the arm where the nodes were extracted. Other rare complications include:
- inflamed lung tissue
- fractured rib due to a weakened rib cage
- heart damage when radiation is given on the left side of the chest
- secondary cancer caused by radiation
If you’re experiencing difficulty swallowing, shortness of breath, or chest pain, see your doctor immediately.
Dealing with Breast Cancer Radiation Side Effects
It may be difficult to avoid side effects of radiation therapy, but there are some things you can do to reduce them.
- Wear flowing clothing if you’re experiencing skin irritation. If you wear a bra, choose one without underwire.
- Ask your doctor if there are special products you should use on your skin while bathing. Check with your medical team before using ointments or creams on the treated area.
- Avoid rubbing or scratching the area, and avoid ice packs and heating pads.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Eat nutritious meals including fruits and vegetables, to help your body repair itself.