Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

The UCSF Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center and the Department of Radiation Oncology have compiled the following information about radiation therapy.

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?

You first will 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, then you will have an extended consultation in which you discuss the details of your treatment. This includes the exact area to treat, the amount of radiation you will receive, the length of treatment time and potential treatment side effects. The radiation oncologist will also answer any questions you may have. These issues vary for each woman, so it is important to make an individual treatment plan.

How Do I Prepare for My Treatments?

Before your first radiation treatment, you will have a simulation appointment. This appointment will last approximately one to two hours. During this appointment, the doctor will identify the exact fields on your body to treat with radiation. This involves lying on a table while the radiation therapist marks the field with small dots made with permanent ink. Each dot is similar to a very small tattoo. You will not receive any radiation treatment during this appointment.

What Can I Expect from My Treatment?

When you arrive, please check in at the desk. Each treatment should only last 10 to 15 minutes. You can change your clothes in the women's dressing room and then wait in the women's lounge to be called.

During each treatment session, you will lay on a table while the technician uses the marks on your skin to locate and treat the field. It is important to be still while getting the radiation, although you should continue to breathe normally.

What Are the Physical Side Effects?

Receiving the radiation will not be 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:

  • Fatigue
  • 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 if you have questions about managing your side effects during treatment.

How Often Will I See My Radiation Oncologist During Treatment?

You will meet with your radiation oncologist once a week during your treatments. Should 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 lessen as they adapt to the new environment and treatment.

Please speak to the staff if you feel that you need either emotional or practical support. There is a social worker on staff in the Radiation Oncology department. This may be a time when you think again about support groups or one-to-one consultation for the feelings that arise or to support your coping. For information about support services, please 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 that which often results from sun exposure. It may develop in your case and is to be expected. This reaction will improve gradually after your therapy has been completed. Listed below are several suggestions you can do now to decrease this irritation and increase your comfort.

You may bathe or shower and shampoo as usual. Do not scrub the skin in the treatment area. Gently towel dry.

If the skin is dry and itchy, your radiation oncologist will discuss the best cream for your care. Apply the recommended cream two to three times a day. Do not apply this ointment prior to your radiation treatment.

Please report and discuss skin changes or problems with the doctor, nurse or technologists. To minimize problems, the following recommendations are advised:

  • Do not expose the treatment areas to sunlight.
  • Do not use any creams or lotions other than prescribed ointments.
  • Do not use deodorants, alcohol, perfumes, iodine, methiolate or other irritating lotions or creams.
  • Do not apply heat — neither hot baths nor hot water bottles.
  • Do not use 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.


Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.