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Radiation therapy is almost always used after lumpectomy—and may be used after mastectomy—to help decrease the risk of recurrence. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist.
During radiation treatments, high-energy X-rays are used to treat the breast and sometimes the surrounding lymph nodes. Radiation is typically delivered on a daily basis, on Monday through Friday, for 10 to 15 minutes each treatment session. The entire radiation course is typically six to seven weeks long, but it may be as short as two to three weeks depending on your particular breast cancer. The radiation oncologist will discuss personalized treatment options in detail.
Radiation therapy for breast cancer can be delivered to the tumor cavity (area where the breast tumor was removed), to the whole breast following breast conservation surgery or to the chest wall/reconstructed breast following mastectomy. Depending on the extent of your particular cancer, you may also receive radiation therapy to the surrounding lymph node regions.
The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which uses machines called linear accelerators to generate beams of radiation outside the body and deliver them to cancerous areas of the body.
You will not see or feel the radiation as it is being delivered. Side effects are typically limited to gradual changes in skin coloration much like a sunburn reaction, and possibly fatigue. There may be some long-term cosmetic effects of radiation; however, risks to normal organs such as the heart and lung are very low with modern radiation treatment planning.
Questions you may want to ask your doctor about radiation therapy:
- Which type of radiation therapy can I consider? Are there options for me?
- When will treatment start? When will it end? How often will I have treatment?
- How will I feel during treatment?
- Will I need to stay in the hospital?
- Will I be able to drive myself to and from the appointments?
- What can I do to take care of myself before, during and after treatment?
- How will we know the treatment is working?
- Will radiation therapy harm my skin?
- How will my chest look afterward?
- Are there any lasting effects?
- What is the chance that the cancer will come back in my breast?