Nearly 300,000 American women receive a breast cancer diagnosis each year, making this type of malignancy second only to skin cancer as the most common form of cancer in women. Breast cancer also affects men, though it’s far less common, with about 2,700 men receiving a breast cancer diagnosis each year.
However, just because so many thousands of people have this disease in common doesn’t mean they’ll follow the same treatment plan post-diagnosis. Ideally, a breast cancer treatment plan is tailored specifically to the individual patient based on the specifics of the cancer as well as the patient’s overall health condition and many other factors. Breast cancer radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is one of many treatment options that cancer specialists may use to combat the malignancy and control its spread to other parts of the body.
Radiation therapy is often selected as a follow-up to surgical removal of breast cancer. In this case, the treatment has two goals: destroying any cancer cells that may remain after surgery and preventing the cancer from coming back.
Other examples of when radiation treatment might be appropriate include patients with breast cancer that can’t be removed with surgery or whose breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs or other organs.
Exactly what is breast cancer radiation therapy?
This type of breast cancer treatment uses high-energy electromagnetic radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Like surgery, radiation therapy is a local treatment that specifically targets a patient’s malignant tumor. Contrast this to systemic cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy and hormone therapy, which are often chosen because they can reach cancer cells almost anywhere in the body.
Breast cancer specialists have several types of radiation treatment to choose from. The two main types are:
External beam radiotherapy
This is the most common type of breast cancer radiation treatment. It typically involves a large machine called a linear accelerator aiming a beam of X-ray radiation at either the whole breast or the part of the breast where cancer has occurred. Patients usually receive daily doses of radiation over several weeks.
Proton beam therapy is another type of external beam radiation that’s being used to treat breast cancer in clinical trials. This type of treatment aims high-energy proton beams instead of X-ray radiation at the cancer site to kill any cancerous cells that may be there. Protons are particles with positive electrical charges that are believed to more narrowly target the treatment site.
Internal radiation for breast cancer
Also known as brachytherapy, this type of radiotherapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in tiny tubes that resemble seeds. The tubes are inserted directly into the area where breast cancer has been removed to prevent any remaining cancer cells from growing and multiplying.
Some patients may receive more than one type of radiation as part of their breast cancer treatment plan. Breast cancer specialists select radiation treatments based on factors such as:
- the size, type and stage of a patient’s breast cancer
- whether the patient’s treatment plan includes chemotherapy or other systemic therapies
- the patient’s age and general health
It’s worth noting that pregnant patients are not candidates for breast cancer radiation therapy because of the risk of harming the unborn child.
Side effects of breast cancer radiation
Breast cancer radiation therapy affects different patients in different ways. The most common side effect is fatigue. For some patients, this feeling of being tired is minimal and doesn’t prevent them from going about their everyday activities. Other patients may experience fatigue after radiation treatment that severely limits their ability to get out of bed. It’s important to let your breast cancer care team know about any radiation side effects you’re experiencing because your doctor may be able to modify your radiotherapy to help ease your symptoms.
Some of the other common short-term side effects of radiation for breast cancer are skin problems—including redness, irritation, dryness, itchiness and peeling—and breast soreness. Less common side effects include nausea and loss of chest or armpit hair.
Additionally, patients who have radiation therapy to the lymph nodes in the underarm or collarbone area may develop lymphedema, a condition in which fluid collects and causes swelling in an arm, hand or breast.
How long do breast cancer radiation side effects last?
For most patients, the side effects from breast cancer radiation will go away within a few weeks or months after the treatment ends. However, some patients experience long-term side effects months or years after treatment, and side effects can sometimes develop for the first time long after treatment. Long-term breast cancer radiation side effects may include:
- Changes in the shape, size and skin color of the treated breast
- Fibrosis, or hardening of breast or underarm tissue
- Telangiectasia, or spider veins, a permanent condition in which tiny broken blood vessels can be seen under the skin
In rare cases, the long-term side effects of breast cancer radiotherapy may include damage to a lung, the heart or nerves in the treatment area, as well as weakened bones that raise the patient’s risk for rib and collarbone fractures.
Managing the side effects of breast cancer radiation therapy
Being diligent about skin care is one of the best ways to cope with the effects of breast cancer radiation treatment. Here are a few tips:
- Use a mild ointment to moisturize the skin after radiotherapy.
- When bathing or showering, use soap that’s formulated for sensitive skin, avoid scrubbing the breast and use only warm (not hot) water.
- Wear loose-fitting shirts and avoid underwire or tightly fitting bras.
It’s also a good idea to talk to your breast cancer care team about foods and beverages to avoid during your radiotherapy if you want to minimize the side effects of treatment.
Breast cancer radiotherapy at Moffitt Cancer Center
For breast cancer radiation treatment, the multispecialty team of experts at Moffitt Cancer Center doesn’t just utilize the latest advancements in techniques and technologies—we develop them. Through extensive research studies, we have been able to refine the delivery of our radiation therapy with pinpoint accuracy and precision. For our patients, this translates into better outcomes through fewer treatment sessions and less discomfort.
Even so, at Moffitt, we firmly believe that it takes much more than state-of-the-art equipment to provide effective breast cancer radiation treatment. The successful delivery of radiation therapy is highly dependent on the expertise of the individuals operating the equipment. In this way, it is our staff that truly sets us apart. Our collaborative team of radiation oncologists has the technical expertise and ability to precisely perform and administer advanced radiation therapy treatments. Each member is highly experienced in a specific type of cancer, as well as a specific aspect of the planning and delivery process. Additionally, to ensure the best possible care, we tailor a radiation therapy plan specifically for each patient based on the type and stage of cancer, as well as other individual factors.
At Moffitt, we offer the latest techniques in screening, diagnosis and treatment for all forms of breast cancer. Some of the breast cancer radiation treatment options available at Moffitt include:
- Standard treatment – Delivered over five to six weeks with three-dimensional computerized radiation therapy (3D CRT) or intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)
- Accelerated treatment – Delivered in one week or less through accelerated partial breast irradiation (APBI) using external beam or internal radiation
- Intraoperative treatment – INTRABEAM® intraoperative radiotherapy is administered in a one-day treatment during lumpectomy surgery (in the Tampa Bay area, this treatment is available exclusively at Moffitt)
- Deep inspiration breath hold (DIBH) – Utilized for left-sided breast cancer radiotherapy to protect against long-term radiation damage to the heart
Moffitt’s patients also benefit from streamlined care through which they can receive radiation treatment, chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments all under one roof. And, while our treatment methods can vary, we remain true to a single, overriding goal: to deliver the optimal treatment for each patient on a case-by-case basis.
If you’re interested in receiving breast cancer radiation treatment at Moffitt, you don’t need a referral. Call 1-888-663-3488, or fill out our new patient registration form to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced breast cancer radiation oncologists.
After a cancer diagnosis, every day counts. Therefore, we’re connecting every new patient with a cancer expert within a day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation.
Breast Cancer Research Foundation – Breast Cancer Statistics
American Cancer Society – Breast Cancer Treatment Options
National Cancer Institute – External and Internal Radiation Therapies
Breast Cancer Now – Side Effects of Radiotherapy