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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

What Are the Side Effects of External Beam Radiation?

Radiation passes through your skin, which can become red, swollen, warm, and sensitive -- as if you had a sunburn. It may peel or become moist and tender. Depending on the dose, you may lose hair or sweat less where you've been treated.

These skin reactions are common and short-term. They usually go away gradually within 4 to 6 weeks after your last treatment. Tell your doctor or nurse if you see skin changes outside the treated area.

Long-term side effects can last beyond a year after treatment. They may include a slight darkening of your skin, enlarged pores on your breast, more or less sensitive skin, thickening of breast tissue or skin, and a change in the size of the breast.

A rare complication of radiation is getting a new cancer or tumor where the radiation is given. Talk to your doctor about this risk.

How Can I Lessen Skin Reactions?

  • Gently cleanse the treated area using lukewarm water and a mild soap. Don’t rub your skin. Pat it dry with a soft towel, or use a hair dryer on a cool setting.
  • Don’t scratch or rub the treated area.
  • Don’t apply any ointment, cream, lotion, or powder to the treated area unless your doctor or nurse has prescribed it.
  • Don’t apply cosmetics, shaving lotions, perfumes, or deodorants on the treated area.
  • Use only an electric razor if you need to shave within the area.
  • Don’t wear tight-fitting clothing or harsh fabrics like wool or corduroy. Instead, choose clothes made from natural fibers like cotton.
  • Don’t put medical tape or bandages on the treated area.
  • Avoid extreme heat or cold where you've had radiation. Don't use an electric heating pad, hot water bottle, or ice pack.
  • Avoid direct sunlight, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., even after your course of treatment has been completed. It can intensify skin reactions and lead to severe sunburn. Choose a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher. Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, and a wide-brimmed hat, too.

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