Radiotherapy uses controlled doses of radiation to kill cancer cells. It's usually given after surgery and chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.
If you need radiotherapy, your treatment will begin about a month after your surgery or chemotherapy to give your body a chance to recover.
You'll probably have radiotherapy sessions 3 to 5 days a week, for 3 to 6 weeks. Each session will only last a few minutes.
The type of radiotherapy you have will depend on your cancer and the type of surgery you have. Some women may not need to have radiotherapy at all.
The types available are:
If you had breast-conserving surgery (a wide local excision or lumpectomy) you will usually have radiotherapy to the remaining breast tissue on that side.
Radiotherapy is usually given to the whole breast.
Your specialist may consider giving radiotherapy to the area of the breast where the cancer was removed if the risk of the cancer coming back is low and you’re going to be taking hormone therapy for at least five years. This is known as partial breast radiotherapy.
If you had a mastectomy for an invasive breast cancer, your specialist may recommend you have radiotherapy to the chest wall.
This may be the case if:
If you’re going to be having breast reconstruction, radiotherapy may affect the timing and type of reconstruction.
Radiotherapy can be given to the lymph nodes under the arm to destroy any cancer cells that may be present there.
It may also be given to the lymph nodes in the lower part of the neck around the collarbone, or in the area near the breastbone (sternum).
If radiotherapy to the lymph nodes is recommended, your specialist will explain why.
Radiotherapy can be given in several ways and using different doses, depending on your treatment plan.
The total dose is split into a course of smaller treatments (called fractions), usually given daily over a few weeks.
It’s carried out by people trained to give radiotherapy, known as therapeutic radiographers.
Radiotherapy is not available in every hospital, but each breast unit is linked to a hospital that has a radiotherapy department.
External beam radiation (also known as traditional or whole breast radiation therapy) uses external beam radiation, like that of a regular x-ray, but the beam is highly focused and targets the cancerous area for two to three minutes. This form of treatment usually involves multiple appointments in an outpatient radiation center — as many as five days a week for five or six weeks. Certain situations may require a slightly higher dose of radiation over a shorter course of treatment, usually three to four weeks (called accelerated radiation.)
External breast cancer radiation used to be the most common type used for breast cancer. However, in more recent years internal radiation clinical trials have enabled more women to opt for this method if their cancer was caught early enough. Internal radiation typically offers fewer noticeable side effects.
Internal radiation is a form of partial breast radiation. During the treatment, the physician or surgeon inserts a radioactive liquid using needles, wires, or a catheter in order to target the area where the cancer originally began to grow and tissue closest to the tumor site to kill any possible remaining cancer cells.
When deciding which areas to treat and how, your treatment team will consider factors such as the location, grade, size and stage of your cancer.
Side effects from radiation therapy differ significantly depending on the type of treatment and which tissues are treated. Side effects tend to be most pronounced toward the end of your radiation treatment. After your sessions are complete, it may be several days or weeks before side effects clear up.
Common side effects during treatment may include:
Depending on which tissues are exposed, radiation therapy may cause or increase the risk of: