What in Involved in Radiation for Breast Cancer?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

When doctors use radiation for breast cancer, they aim beams of radiation at the cancer cells within a woman’s breast and the surrounding area. Often, the radiation is applied externally, which means a machine is used to apply the radiation to the breast in order to damage or destroy cancer cells. In other cases, however, doctors may place small radioactive pellets inside a woman’s breast. Unfortunately, using radiation for breast cancer means some of a woman’s healthy cells may be affected as well. Healthy cells are, however, usually better able to repair themselves than cancer cells.

Radiation is one treatment for breast cancer.
Radiation is one treatment for breast cancer.

One type of radiation for breast cancer involves the use of a machine that aims powerful x-ray beams at the affected breast tissue. These beams can be used to treat the whole breast or only part of it. In some cases, the chest wall and the lymph nodes may require treatment as well. A woman may have to undergo radiation treatments each day for several weeks. In most cases, however, each external radiation treatment lasts for only minutes at a time.

A linear accelerator can be used to target breast cancer with radiation.
A linear accelerator can be used to target breast cancer with radiation.

In most cases, a woman who undergoes external radiation treatments for the breast will not experience pain during treatment or such side effects as hair loss or vomiting. As radiation for breast cancer proceeds, and sometimes for a couple of months following it, a woman may experience minor aches and pains in her breast as well as dry, reddened, itchy skin. Some patients may also experience fatigue as a result of radiation for breast cancer, and scar tissue may form that can affect her lungs or even her heart.

A woman may experience minor aches and pains in her breasts as radiation treatment proceeds.
A woman may experience minor aches and pains in her breasts as radiation treatment proceeds.

Sometimes doctors also use internal methods of delivering radiation to treat breast cancer patients. For example, doctors may place catheters under a patient’s skin and use them for inserting radiation seeds or pellets into the body. A patient may need to be hospitalized during this type of treatment, which may last for a few days. Once the treatment is complete, doctors typically remove the catheters and the seeds and then release the patient from the hospital soon afterward.

Sometimes doctors use internal methods of delivering radiation to treat breast cancer patients.
Sometimes doctors use internal methods of delivering radiation to treat breast cancer patients.

In other cases, a catheter with a liquid-filled balloon device attached to it may be used for delivering radiation to the breast. In such a case, a radioactive pellet is placed inside the balloon during treatment. In most cases, two treatments, lasting several minutes each, are given daily for five days. Side effects of internal radiation may include nausea, fatigue, and drowsiness. Some patients also feel discomfort in the area in which the catheter is implanted.

Using radiation for breast cancer means that some women's healthy cells may be affected as well.
Using radiation for breast cancer means that some women's healthy cells may be affected as well.
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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