Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer
What Is Radiation Therapy?
Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays or particles to treat disease. It works by killing tumor cells or inhibiting their growth and division.
Through years of clinical trials, radiation oncologists have studied the use of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. These studies have led to the widespread use of effective and tolerable doses of radiation therapy.
It is used to treat early stage breast cancer along with surgery for local control of disease. It may be used in more advanced breast cancer to control the disease or to treat symptoms, such as pain.
Where Do I Start?
First, you'll meet with a radiation oncologist to decide if radiation therapy is a recommended treatment option for your particular situation. If you and your doctors decide to proceed, you'll have an extended consultation to discuss the details of your treatment.
The issues vary for each person, so it's important to make an individual treatment plan. Details include the exact area to treat, the amount of radiation you'll receive, how many treatments you'll have and potential side effects.
The radiation oncologist will also answer any questions you may have.
How Do I Prepare for My Treatments?
Before your first radiation treatment, you'll be scheduled for a "simulation" appointment lasting approximately one to two hours. You won't receive any radiation during that appointment. Instead, the doctor will identify the exact areas on your body to treat with radiation.
This involves lying on a table while the radiation therapist marks the areas with small dots made with permanent ink. Each dot is similar to a very small tattoo.
What Can I Expect From My Treatment?
You'll change your clothes in the dressing room and then wait to be called. Each treatment should only last 10 to 15 minutes.
At the beginning of each treatment session, you'll lie on a table while the technician uses the marks on your skin to locate the areas to be treated. They'll then leave the room but will be in communication with you at all times during the treatment itself. It's important to be still while getting the radiation, although you should continue to breathe normally.
What Are the Physical Side Effects?
Receiving radiation is not painful. Side effects vary from person to person and depend on the site being treated. The most common side effects in the treatment of breast cancer are:
- Skin changes
- Uncomfortable sensations in the treated breast
Please talk to your doctor or nurse if you have concerns about side effects before you begin treatment or have questions about managing your side effects during treatment.
How Often Will I See My Radiation Oncologist During Treatment?
You'll meet with your radiation oncologist once a week. If you have additional questions or concerns, simply ask to speak with your doctor again.
What Emotional Responses Might I Expect?
You may or may not experience anxiety or fear when you begin your treatment. Most people tell us that their concerns fade as they adapt to the new environment and treatment.
Please speak to the staff if you feel the need for either emotional or practical support. A social worker is on staff in the UCSF Radiation Oncology department.
This may be a time when you think again about support groups or one-to-one consultations for the feelings that arise or to help you cope. For information about support services, call the Breast Care Center at (415) 353-7070.
Skin Care Tips
Several weeks after your first treatment, your skin in the treatment area may appear reddened or darkened, itchy or irritated. This reaction is similar to how your skin might react to sun exposure. If it develops in your case, it will improve gradually after your therapy has been completed.
Here are some things you can do now to reduce the irritation and feel more comfortable:
Bathe or shower and shampoo as usual. Do not scrub the skin in the treatment area. Gently towel dry.
If your skin is dry and itchy, your radiation oncologist will recommend the best cream or lotion for your care. Apply the recommended cream two or three times a day. Do not apply it before your radiation treatment.
If your treatment is first thing in the morning, don't apply any creams or lotions after you wake up; wait until after your treatment. If your appointment is later in the day, ask your doctor how many hours before your appointment you should stop applying creams or lotions.
Please report and discuss skin changes or problems with the doctor, nurse or technologists. To minimize problems, follow these recommendations:
- Do not expose the treatment areas to sunlight.
- Do not use any creams or lotions other than the ones your doctor specifically recommends.
- Do not use deodorants, alcohol, perfumes, iodine, merthiolate, or other irritating lotions or creams.
- Do not apply heat (no hot baths or hot water bottles)
- Do not apply cold, such as ice bags.
- Do not scratch.
- Do not use a razor in the treated area.
- Prevent rubbing of clothes over the treated area, especially irritating straps. Try to wear cotton clothing next to your skin.
If skin changes occur, please discuss them with your doctor or the Radiation Oncology staff.
UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.