Various therapies and treatments are available to individuals with breast cancer, and radiation therapy is often a cornerstone of the treatment regimen.

The American Cancer Society states that breast cancer is the second most common cancer in females, behind skin cancer.

Many factors will determine the outlook for a person with breast cancer, including their age and overall health, as well as the stage of cancer at diagnosis. However, the correct treatment of this disease can increase an individual’s chances of survival.

Doctors often recommend radiation therapy, which they may use alone or in combination with other treatments, depending on the cancer type and stage.

This article discusses the types of radiation therapy for breast cancer, the risks and side effects, and how people can prepare for this treatment.

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Radiation therapy uses high energy X-rays, protons, or other particles to kill cancer cells. These particles damage the DNA in cancer cells, ridding them of their ability to reproduce, which slows or stops their growth.

Although radiation therapy can affect healthy cells, they usually recover. Doctors use the lowest effective dosage of radiation and pinpoint the cancer cells to minimize the damage to healthy tissue.

Why and when people start radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a flexible and safe treatment. Doctors may use it after surgery to remove cancerous tumors, as it can reduce the chances of a recurrence by destroying any remaining cancer cells.

If an individual has metastatic breast cancer, which is when cancer has spread to other parts of the body, doctors may also opt to treat them with radiation therapy to ease their symptoms.

Learn more about radiation therapy here.

Individuals often have radiation therapy following surgery to remove breast cancer.

Studies show that the risk of cancer reoccurring is much higher if doctors do not use radiation to treat the person. When a person does undergo radiation therapy, the risk of recurrence is 5–10% compared with 20–40% in those who do not receive this treatment.

Doctors typically use one of two types of radiation therapy to treat individuals with breast cancer. In some cases, they may use both types.

External beam radiation

External beam radiation uses machines to focus radioactive particles at the areas of the body that cancer has affected. It is the type of radiation therapy that doctors most commonly use to treat breast cancer. The treatment type and schedule differ depending on the areas of the body that need treatment and the extent to which cancer has spread.

In whole breast radiation, machines direct radioactive particles across the entire breast. This procedure takes place after surgery to remove the primary tumors. If any cancer cells have survived the surgery, the radiation helps prevent them from growing.

A whole breast radiation treatment regimen consists of appointments 5 days a week for 6–7 weeks.

Hypofractionated radiation therapy is a faster process that focuses radiation on the whole breast in larger doses for 3–5 weeks. This schedule is just as effective and may even result in fewer long-term side effects.

More precise techniques, such as 3D-conformal radiotherapy and intensity modulated radiotherapy, focus radiation from various directions and at different strengths. These techniques can kill cancer cells in specific areas while minimizing collateral damage to the surrounding tissue.

However, doctors do not often use these forms of treatment for breast cancer because there is little research on their long-term effectiveness.

A 2018 study involving people with early stage breast cancer found accelerated partial irradiation techniques to be as effective as whole breast radiation. It also costs less, has a shorter treatment timeline, and produces fewer adverse effects.

Individuals interested in partial breast irradiation therapies can speak with their doctor about which type might be the best option for them.

Internal beam radiation, or brachytherapy

Brachytherapy is a type of radiation therapy that generates radiation from within the body. In comparison with external beam radiation, which projects particles of radiation from outside the body, brachytherapy can deliver higher doses of radiation in a precise fashion, resulting in fewer side effects and shorter treatment times.

The type of brachytherapy that doctors use depends on the location of the tumor, how much the cancer has spread, and the person’s overall health.

Intracavity brachytherapy

The doctor will use a tube or cylinder to deliver a radioactive substance into the body and place it in the tumor.

Interstitial brachytherapy

The doctor will use a needle or catheter to place radioactive material within a cavity — either a natural one or one that surgery has created. For breast cancer, they will place it in the breast.

Brachytherapy can also involve either high-dose-rate or low-dose-rate treatments.

High dose rate

This type consists of multiple treatment sessions in which doctors place radioactive material in the body for about 10–20 minutes before removing it.

Low dose rate

This type uses substances that release a constant, low dose of radiation over 1–7 days, during which time a person will likely stay in the hospital. Doctors will remove the radiation source after a designated amount of time.

Radiation therapy should not cause pain or discomfort during the procedure. However, minor side effects are common in the days or weeks afterward. Before beginning radiation therapy, an individual should schedule a consultation with their doctor to work out the details.

People should also take some precautions while they are receiving radiation therapy. For example, they should avoid direct sun exposure by using sunscreen and covering up areas of bare skin when outside.

Also, taking antioxidant supplements, such as vitamins A, C, D, and E, can interfere with radiation therapy’s effectiveness. People should, therefore, focus on eating a well-balanced diet so that their body can absorb the nutrients and vitamins it needs from food.

Side effects from radiation therapy are common. The main side effect is skin changes in affected areas. These can resemble a sunburn, as they include discoloration, itchiness, and peeling skin.

After treatment, the skin in the area can remain sensitive to the touch or change color. Other common side effects include swelling in the breast, fatigue, and armpit discomfort.

Radiation therapy is a widely used, safe, and effective treatment for breast cancer that kills cancer cells or slows their growth. Doctors may use radiation therapy alone or in combination with other treatments, such as surgery and chemotherapy.

People may need to complete a course of radiation therapy, which will likely span several weeks.

Radiation treatment can use external beam radiation or internal beam radiation, which doctors call brachytherapy. The therapy may treat the whole breast or focus on specific areas to minimize the damage to healthy cells.