Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in American women, according to the American Cancer Society.
Approximately 270,00 patients will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
Many women receive radiation therapy as an important part of their treatment for breast cancer.
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Breast cancer is primarily treated with surgery. After surgery, radiation treatments are used to reduce the risk of the tumor coming back, even though tumor cells may not be visible to your doctors. The benefits of radiation therapy depend upon the type of surgery performed and particular features of your tumor found at the time of surgery. You may see a radiation oncologist before surgery, but most decisions are not finalized about radiation treatment until the post-operative period in order to give your doctor more information about how helpful it may be for you.
As recently as the 1970s, women diagnosed with breast cancer had only one standard treatment option: a mastectomy, or surgical removal of the entire breast. Clinical trials have demonstrated that many women can have a breast-conserving surgery removing the tumor and radiation therapy with equal effectiveness compared to mastectomy. Both your surgeon and radiation oncologist will work together with you to determine whether this approach is right for you. Breast-conserving surgery is not suitable for everyone, but radiation therapy allows many women to undergo less surgery without compromising the chance of successfully treating your breast cancer.
Radiation treatments are delivered in a series of daily sessions, Monday through Friday, for three to six weeks. Each treatment usually lasts less than 5 minutes but your appointment time is 15-30 minutes each day. Radiation therapy can be used to treat the breast and sometimes the lymph nodes dependent upon risk factors, which your doctor will review with you.
Acute side effects may include skin irritation (redness, itching, peeling), mild to moderate breast swelling and fatigue. However, the likelihood of these symptoms depends upon many factors that your doctor will discuss with you at the time of your visit.
The standard approach after breast conserving surgery is to use external beam radiation therapy to treat the whole breast for daily sessions, Monday through Friday for three to six weeks. For certain women, partial breast radiation it may be an option to consider, consisting of treatment twice a day for five days. Clinical trials are currently underway to determine whether this innovative approach is equally effective as whole breast radiation therapy. Talk with your surgeon and radiation oncologist about whether this treatment may be an option for you.
In cases where the breast is surgically removed, there may some benefit to postoperative radiation treatments for the chest wall and/or nearby lymph node areas. Whether or not radiation treatment should be used after removal of the breast depends on several factors, and many women may not need radiation therapy at all after a mastectomy. After surgery, your surgeon and radiation oncologist can give you a better sense of whether post-mastectomy radiation therapy would be helpful for you.