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Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

Radiation therapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses high levels of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing and dividing -- while minimizing damage to healthy cells.

What Types of Breast Cancer Need Radiation?

Your doctor may recommend radiation treatments after a lumpectomy (a breast-sparing surgery to remove a tumor) or after a mastectomy to lower the odds of the cancer returning in that breast.

Radiation may also be used to treat some symptoms of advanced cancer.

Treatments generally start several weeks after surgery, so your body has some time to heal. If your doctor recommends chemotherapy, too, you may start chemo first.

What Are the Types of Breast Cancer Radiation?

The type that most people are familiar with is called external beam radiation. It's the type most commonly used in cases of breast cancer. External beam radiation works by focusing a beam of radiation from a machine to its target, the area of the body affected by cancer.     

The other type of breast cancer radiation is called brachytherapy. This type delivers radiation to the cancer internally using an implant. In the case of breast cancer, radioactive seeds or pellets -- as small as grains of rice -- are placed inside the breast near the cancer.

Brachytherapy can be used alone or with external beam radiation. Tumor size, location, and other factors will determine if someone is a candidate for this type of radiation. Brachytherapy has side effects, including redness, bruising, breast pain, infection, weakness, and an increased risk of fractured ribs.

What to Expect With External Beam Radiation

The therapist will escort you into the treatment room, help you onto the table, and help place you in the right position. He or she will leave the room and start the radiation treatment.

You will be under constant observation during the treatment. Cameras and an intercom allow the therapist to see and hear you. Tell your therapist right away if you have a problem. It's important that you hold still and stay relaxed during treatment.

The therapist will be in and out of the room to reposition the machine and your body. The machine will not touch you, and you will feel nothing during the treatment.

How Does the Therapist Know I Am in the Correct Position?

The radiation therapist takes an X-ray called a "port film" on your first day of treatment and every week thereafter. Port films verify that you are being accurately positioned during your treatments.

Port films don't show how your cancer is responding.

Why Are There Marks on My Skin for External Beam Radiation?

Small marks that look like freckles are tattooed on your skin along the treatment area. They provide a permanent outline of your treatment area. Do not try to wash these marks off or retouch them if they fade. The therapist will re-mark the treatment area when needed.

WebMD Medical Reference

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