What is Radiotherapy for Breast Cancer?
Some women with breast cancer will be recommended radiotherapy as part of their treatment.
Radiotherapy is sometimes referred to as radiation therapy. It involves the use of X-rays to destroy cancer cells that may be left in the breast and/or axilla (armpit) after your surgery.
Does Everybody with Breast Cancer have Radiotherapy?
Not all women with breast cancer will be recommended to have radiotherapy. However, it is usually advised, for women who have breast-conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy). Radiotherapy is sometimes used following a mastectomy to target any cancer cells that may remain in the chest wall. If you are having chemotherapy as well as radiotherapy, you will usually have your chemotherapy treatment first.
What Happens During Radiotherapy?
If radiotherapy is being considered for you, you will be referred to a radiation oncologist. Before starting your radiotherapy treatment, the radiation oncologist will meet with you to discuss your treatment.
After your breast cancer surgery, your surgeon will discuss your case in the breast cancer multidisciplinary meeting prior to referring you to see a radiation oncologist. During that consultation, your radiotherapy treatment will be fully explained by your radiation oncologist, radiation therapist and/or nurse, who will be more than happy to answer any questions that you might have.
A CT scan will be taken of your chest so that the area to be targeted by the radiotherapy can be determined.
- If you have had breast-conserving surgery, you will have radiotherapy on the part of your breast where the cancer was, and
- If you have had a mastectomy, you will have radiotherapy on your chest wall.
- Some women will also have radiotherapy on their armpit or neck.
Radiotherapy is typically administered every day (except weekends) for three to six weeks. Each treatment takes only a few minutes, although sometimes you may have to wait for a radiotherapy machine to become available.
If you live in a rural area you may need to go to a major regional centre or city to have radiotherapy. Some women need to spend up to six weeks away from home as a result.
What Are the Side Effects of Radiotherapy?
Radiotherapy can have a number of side effects, including burns to the skin at the treatment site. While radiotherapy is painless, after a few weeks you may notice that your skin starts to go red and possibly blister. Women who have had a mastectomy tend to experience worse burns because the skin on the chest wall is the target of the radiotherapy. Women who have had breast-conserving surgery tend to experience lesser burns because the radiotherapy targets their breast tissue and not their skin.
If you are at all worried about your skin, you may like to talk to your radiation oncologist about skincare.
- Changes in skin colour. Your skin may become darker during treatment.
- Changes in skin thickness. Your skin may become tougher or thicker after treatment.
- Fatigue (tiredness) – it is normal to feel tired during the weeks in which you are having radiotherapy.
- Tenderness in the breast and/or chest. This can increase for the first few months AFTER radiotherapy finishes before it improves.
- Swelling of the breast.
- Loss of appetite.