Breast Cancer Radiation - Radiotherapy for breast cancer patients
Radiation involves the use of radioactive particles to destroy cancerous cells. It’s sometimes used before an operation to shrink a tumour but it’s a more common treatment after surgery to stop the growth of any cancer cells still lurking in the breast or under arm area. Radiation therapy can also help alleviate pain in patients with advanced cancer which is no longer regarded as treatable (this is known as palliative care).
There are two types of radiation therapy - internal and external. The most common form is external radiation, which normally doesn’t involve a stay in hospital. If you’ve had surgery, your cancer team will probably recommend a recovery time of about a month before radiotherapy starts. Radiation is then delivered in several sessions a week over a period of at least six weeks. A typical session lasts between 15 and 30 minutes.
Internal radiation is a newer and less common procedure involving the delivery of radioactive materials directly into the body, either into or near the tumour, via tiny plastic tubes. The treatment (called brachytherapy) has the advantage of being delivered over a period of just one week but its effectiveness for breast cancer patients is still being evaluated in clinical trials.
Common side effects of radiation include extreme tiredness, an adverse skin reaction (similar to sunburn) and loss of appetite. The treatment can also cause a drop in white blood cell levels which may worsen the problem of fatigue.
Travelling to and from hospital for radiation sessions can be a gruelling and disheartening business in itself, adding to your exhaustion. Some women make arrangements to stay as near to the hospital as possible throughout the course of their treatment – it’s not a practical option for everyone but might be worth considering if you can juggle your domestic arrangements accordingly.
If you suffer skin irritation and burns, a gentle moisturiser such as aloe vera can help to ease the soreness. But don’t apply anything to the affected area immediately after radiation and be careful what products you use because some creams, soaps and deodorants can irritate the skin even more. Ask your cancer care team for advice.
Fewer patients suffer with nausea and vomiting during a course of radiotherapy than with chemo. This is because the treatment is more localised so there’s less of a chance of it irritating the stomach lining and causing nausea.
Radiation might well knock your sex drive for six but this is more likely to be due to tiredness and emotional turmoil rather than the treatment itself. It’s important to know that you are NOT radioactive and can’t somehow contaminate your partner after you’ve had radiation. This is a very real fear for some couples who find themselves too embarrassed to raise the issue with their medical team.