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Radiation therapy treats cancer by using high energy rays to target and eliminate cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be used as a part of treatment for almost every stage of breast cancer. Your physician may recommend radiation to treat cancer that cannot be removed with surgery, after surgery to treat any remaining cancer cells, or to target breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. It may also be used to reduce symptoms caused by breast cancer.

There are two main types of radiation therapy used to treat breast cancer:

  • External Beam Radiation Therapy: This form of radiation therapy uses a machine to deliver radiation to the area of the body affected by cancer. This procedure is painless and only lasts a few minutes, though set up for the treatment takes longer. This is the most common form of radiation therapy used to treat breast cancer.
  • Internal Radiation Therapy: Also called brachytherapy, this treatment is usually used after surgery. Radioactive substances are placed directly into the breast tissue in the area where the cancer was removed to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

How Radiation Therapy is Used to Treat Breast Cancer

The radiation therapy treatment plan recommended by your physician will depend on the stage and type of your breast cancer, any other treatments you are receiving, and your overall health.

Radiation Therapy after Lumpectomy

A lumpectomy, also called breast-conserving surgery, removes the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue. Some lymph nodes may also be removed. Radiation therapy can be given after a lumpectomy to reduce the risk of local recurrence. Your radiation therapy treatment plan after a lumpectomy may include:

Whole-breast irradiation, which is external beam radiation therapy given to the entire breast. This is the most common form of radiation therapy given after a lumpectomy. Often, an extra boost of radiation is also given to the area in the breast where the cancer was removed to prevent the cancer from recurring. This boost is given after treatment to the whole breast has been completed.

Partial-breast irradiation, which is given to the area of the breast where the cancer was removed. This can be done using external beam radiation therapy or internal radiation therapy and is sometimes an option for early-stage breast cancer.

Radiation Therapy after Mastectomy

A mastectomy removes breast cancer by removing the entire breast. Some patients may receive radiation therapy after a mastectomy. Your physician will look at the size of your cancer, the number of lymph nodes affected, and other characteristics to determine if radiation therapy would be a benefit to you.

If your physician determines radiation therapy would be beneficial for you after your mastectomy, this may include radiation to your chest wall, mastectomy scar, and/or lymph nodes.

Radiation Therapy for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy may be used to shrink or control the cancer at the spot where it has spread or to relieve symptoms. This can help decrease pain, lower the risk of broken bones and bleeding, and improve breathing. Your radiation treatment plan will depend on the urgency of your symptoms and any current or previous treatment.

Radiation Therapy for Inflammatory Breast Cancer

Inflammatory breast cancer spreads to the lymph channels of the skin covering the breast. Radiation therapy for this kind of cancer is usually given after both chemotherapy and mastectomy to decrease the chance of the cancer coming back.

What to Expect During Radiation Therapy

Every patient is different, and so is their cancer treatment. If your breast cancer treatment includes radiation therapy, your cancer care team at Maryland Oncology Hematology will include the following:

  • Radiation Oncologist: This is a physician who specializes in using radiation therapy to treat cancer. They oversee your treatment and work closely with other members of your cancer care team members.
  • Radiation Oncology Nurse: Your nurse is there to answer any questions you may have during treatment, monitor your health, and help you manage any side effects.
  • Radiation Therapist: This member of your team will operate the machines used in your radiation therapy and gives you your treatment.
  • Physicist: A physicist specializing in cancer treatments will work with the radiation oncologist to plan each radiation treatment to ensure the right amount of radiation is delivered to the correct area of the body. They also help make any changes needed once the patient begins treatment.
  • Dosimetrist: This member of your care team helps your radiation oncologist determine the correct dose of radiation.

While your care team at Maryland Oncology Hematology can answer any questions you may have prior to beginning radiation therapy, here’s what you can generally expect as you begin treatment:

  • Before you begin radiation therapy, your care team will plan your treatment with a simulation. You will lie on the imaging scanner in the same position you will be in during treatment. Your team may mark a spot on your skin to help aim the radiation beam.
  • Treatment sessions are generally short, lasting only a few minutes. You will not feel the radiation during the treatment. As you receive the radiation, you will be monitored by your radiation therapist. The total number of treatments you receive will be determined by your care team.
  • While it’s rare to notice side effects while radiation is being administered, you may experience side effects after treatment. Please talk to your physician about potential side effects for your specific treatment.
  • During treatment, you can expect to regularly check in with your radiation oncologist and radiation oncology nurse to evaluate side effects and address any of your concerns.
  • After treatment is completed, your physician will schedule follow-up appointments as needed.