Radiotherapy For Breast Cancer

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy (also known as radiation therapy) is a treatment that uses radiation to kill cancer cells. The radiation is usually in the form of focused x-ray beams.

Radiotherapy works because cancer cells are more sensitive to radiation than normal cells. If a small dose of radiation is given each day over several weeks, normal cells can recover from radiation but cancer cells are less able to recover.

When is radiotherapy given?

Radiotherapy is given after surgery to reduce the risk of cancer returning in the breast, chest area or lymph nodes. It is usually started within 6 weeks of surgery. If you are having chemotherapy after surgery, radiotherapy is given after chemotherapy (within 4 weeks).

Will I need radiotherapy?

After Breast Conserving Surgery

If you had breast conserving surgery, you will usually have radiotherapy to the remaining breast tissue on that side. Radiotherapy is usually given to the whole breast.

After a Mastectomy

If you had a mastectomy, you may require radiotherapy to the chest wall if

  • The cancer was large
  • There is a high risk that cancer cells may have been left behind after surgery
  • Cancer is found in the lymph nodes under the arm
  • You have inflammatory breast cancer

Radiotherapy may affect the timing and type of breast reconstruction.

Radiotherapy to the Lymph Nodes

Radiotherapy can be given to the lymph nodes under the arm to destroy any cancer cells that may be present there. It may also be given to the lymph nodes in the lower part of the neck or in the area near the breastbone.

How is radiotherapy given?

External beam radiation therapy is used for breast cancer treatment. Radiation beams from a large machine called a linear accelerator are precisely aimed at the area of the body where the cancer is located. You will lie on a treatment table underneath a machine that moves around your body. You won’t see or feel the radiation, although the machine can make noises as it moves.

How long does radiotherapy last?

Radiotherapy for breast cancer usually lasts 3 to 6 weeks. Treatment is given daily from Monday to Friday. Each treatment session can last for 30 minutes - treatment takes about 5 minutes but setting up the machine can take 10 to 15 minutes.

Where will I have radiotherapy?

You will be treated as an outpatient in a radiation oncology centre. Local treatment centres include Icon Cancer Centre Gosford and Gosford Hospital.

Am I ‘radioactive’ after treatment?

No, the radiation does not stay in your body during or after treatment. It is safe for you to be with other people, including children, during and after your treatment. It is also safe for you to have normal contact with people including hugging and kissing.

What are the side effects of radiotherapy?

During treatment

  • Skin reddening and irritation
  • Aches and pains in the breast
  • Hair loss in treated armpit region
  • Fatigue

After treatment

  • Breast swelling
  • Increased breast firmness
  • Skin changes, including prominent blood vessels
  • Lymphoedema
  • Lung inflammation and scarring
  • Rib fracture
  • Damage to heart
  • Radiation induced cancers

Can I drive myself to treatment?

Most people feel well enough to travel to and from the hospital by themselves during radiotherapy. However, it is recommended that a family member or friend comes with you to your first appointment to support you and help you get home if necessary.

Will I be able to work during radiotherapy?

Most people are able to continue working during their treatment. Others may need to reduce their hours or take time off. How much you will be able to work depends on the type of radiotherapy you have, how the treatment makes you feel and the type of work you do. Ask your treatment team if they offer very early or late appointments so that you can fit your treatment appointments around your work.

Talk to your employer about your working arrangements. Explain that it is hard to predict how radiotherapy will affect you and discuss the options of flexible hours, modified duties or taking leave.