Womens Health

Breast Cancer: Radiation Treatment for Breast Cancer

Radiation treatment is a form of cancer treatment, specifically breast cancer treatment. The use of radiation therapy to target breast cancer is used in combination with or instead of chemotherapy and can be used with other types of breast cancer treatment. There are many health benefits associated with breast cancer radiation treatment, and radiation therapy is considered a highly effective form of breast cancer treatment.

What is Breast Cancer Radiation Treatment?

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy rays to prevent the growth and division of cancerous cells. It is an effective tool in the treatment of cancer, especially when cancer is detected in its early stages.

Also known as radiotherapy, radiation treatment is a method which aims to target and destroy cancer cells. It is also used in treatment of other types of cancer, such as stomach cancer and cervical cancer.

It is estimated that 50% of all cancer patients undergo radiation as part of their treatment. Radiation treatment is distinct from chemotherapy as radiation therapy targets a specific area of the body that is affected by cancer, while chemotherapy is a systematic form of cancer therapy, meaning it treats the entire body.

When Is Breast Cancer Radiation Treatment Used?

Radiation treatment is often used to destroy remaining breast cancer cells in the breast as well as the chest wall or axilla (underarm) area following surgery. In some cases, radiation cancer treatment is used prior to surgery in order to reduce the size of a tumor.

Radiation is also used in the early stages of breast cancer therapy as part of breast-conserving therapy (BCT). Breast-conserving therapy, or lumpectomy, is the surgical removal of a cancerous lump found in the breast as well as the surrounding margin of normal breast tissue. Breast cancer radiation treatment usually begins one month after surgery so as to allow the breast tissue adequate time to heal, and is generally administered for a period of six to seven weeks.

In addition, radiation therapy may be recommended for women who have had a mastectomy.

Types of Breast Cancer Radiation Treatment

There are three types of radiation therapy:

  • External Beam Radiation Treament: this is the most common type of radiation therapy used in the treatment of women with breast cancer. External beam radiation is delivered from an external source and targets a specific location on the body that is affected by breast cancer. This form of radiation therapy is similar to a diagnostic x-ray, except that it is delivered in a higher dose and for a longer period of exposure time. A painless procedure, the patient is exposed to this form of treatment five times a week for a minimum of six weeks. Each treatment lasts from about 15 to 30 minutes, and the entire procedure is done on an outpatient basis.
    Side Effects: include fatigue (particularly in the later stages of treatment), loss of appetite, swelling and tenderness of the breast, a sunburned appearance of the skin, and neutropenia (a sharp decline in white blood cell count). These symptoms generally last for a period of 12 months.
  • Internal Radiation Treatment: also known as brachytherapy, internal radiation is a form of radiation therapy that is still in its experimental stages. In internal radiation, radioactive substances are placed directly against the tissue next to the cancer; ten to twelve catheters (small plastic tubes) are then surgically implanted into the tissue so as to guide the radioactive substances to the area affected by cancer. Nine times a week, the catheters are connected to a high-dose-rate brachytherapy machine where treatment is administered. A painless procedure, internal radiation is in its clinical stages for the treatment of breast cancer; however it is currently being used to treat other cancers, such as prostate, cervical and mouth cancer.
    Side Effects: include swelling and infection. However, clinical trials suggest that this form of breast cancer treatment would result in reduced skin irritation, as well as reduced irritation of healthy breast tissue compared to external beam radiation. Also, internal radiation therapy can be delivered more quickly than external beam radiation, meaning that there would be less of a delay between breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
  • Intra-Operative Radiation Treatment (IORT): this form of breast cancer radiation treatment is used during lumpectomy. IORT is therefore used to destroy cells that linger after surgery. IORT is a unique form of breast cancer radiation therapy in that it uses one boost of radiation treatment, which is delivered directly to the affected area. This allows the administration of a single high dose of radiation as compared to external beam radiation, which uses weaker doses of radiation and which therefore requires repeated doses. In addition, IORT does not require a delay between surgery and radiation therapy. This new form of breast cancer radiation therapy is in its developmental stages. Clinical studies have shown promising results; for example, 100% of 72 patients achieved local control of the cancer after undergoing intra-operative radiation treatment and 98.6% became disease-free. IORT has also been used in clinical trials for the treatment of lung, brain and stomach cancer.
    Side Effects: In the clinical trials, no major complications were found in the use of IORT. However, 10% of patients developed a palpable hardening of the lumpectomy site that was plaque-like in texture. These growths disappeared after several months.

How Effective is Radiation Therapy?

Radiation treatment is very effective in the treatment of breast cancer.

Radiation therapy reduces the risk of recurrence by 50 to 66%.

In addition, a recent study found that women aged 65 and older had an increased risk of local recurrence when lumpectomy was not followed by radiation treatment.

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