When the prospect of breast cancer radiation therapy is being considered, it is important to make an informed choice based on the benefits that will come from the procedure and its side effects. The decision to elect breast cancer radiation therapy should ideally be based on a decision made after considering these pros and cons.
How does breast cancer radiation therapy work?
Also known as radiotherapy, the process involves using radiation of high energy waves to stop cancer cells from reproducing and increasing in number.
With breast cancer radiation therapy the risk of recurrence of the cancer is reduced by approximately 70%.
When is breast cancer radiation therapy used?
Most often this procedure is used after surgery, to destroy any remaining cancerous cells that could be present in the underarm, the breast or chest wall. In some cases, it is used to reduce the size of the tumor before surgery is performed.
The therapy can be used after a mastectomy (surgical removal of the entire breast) or lumpectomy, to kill the remaining cancer cells or it could be used for those with advanced breast cancer to shrink the tumor.
Breast cancer radiation therapy is not used in the event that radiation has already been given to that area of the body, if connective tissue disease such as scleroderma or vasculitis makes a person more sensitive to the therapy. It is also not used on pregnant women.
What are the side effects of breast cancer radiation therapy?
The difference between radiation and chemotherapy has to be understood here, that the typical side effects associated with chemo – such as hair loss, nausea, etc., are not associated with radiation. The most common side effects noted are:
- Feelings of tiredness and fatigue are most commonly noted.
- The treated area skin could become more sensitive or conversely in some case, less sensitive.
- There could be swelling or tenderness or a feeling of heaviness in the breast area.
- A reduction in the number of white blood cells is also noted.
- A sunburn like appearance of the skin area treated, such as blistering and peeling is usually noted.
- Loss of appetite could be a side effect as well.
- There could be aches and pains in the breast muscles or surrounding areas, and these could occur years after treatment as well. These are not an indication of the cancer returning.
The side effects of radiation therapy go away some weeks after treatment. Not all women have these side effects and side effects may vary greatly from one to another woman.
What should be done to manage the side effects of breast cancer radiation therapy?
It is important to wear loose, natural fabric clothing that is able to breathe. Rather than hot water, it is advisable to use warm water for bathing and washing the area.
Sun exposure should be avoided as far as possible, to prevent exacerbation of the skin irritation. If possible, leave off the bra, of at least wear a loose fitting one. Use only prescribed creams to soothe the area.