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10 Radiation Treatment Myths, Part 1

Learn The Truth About Radiation Treatments For Breast Cancer

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Updated June 26, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Michael A. Nichols, MD, PhD, Radiation Oncologist

Michael A. Nichols, MD, PhD, Radiation Oncologist

Photo © Coastal Carolina Radiation Oncology

To clear up some common radiation treatment myths, I spoke with Dr. Michael Nichols, a board-certified radiation oncologist. Dr. Nichols sets the record straight about radiation treatment and how it affects your health.

Myth 1: Radiation from a screening mammogram can give you breast cancer.

Answer: The radiation received from a screening mammogram is relatively low. Think about what causes a greater risk to your health: having a mammogram, or not detecting a tumor early. Clearly the risk is higher if you skip screening mammograms. Research shows that the risk of dying from breast cancer is about 30% lower for women who have screening mammograms. Remember that your lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is approximately 1 in 8 or 9. The chance of getting breast cancer from a mammogram is tiny.

Myth 2: Radiation is supposed to prevent a recurrence, but I think it will cause more breast cancer.

Answer: In considering all women with early stage breast cancer, the risk of recurrence after surgery alone is approximately 40%. With whole breast radiation, that risk drops to around 15%. The risk of a second cancer from the radiation is about one in a thousand to one in ten thousand. In fact, because of improved techniques, the actual number of new cancers caused by radiation may be even lower.

Myth 3: During radiation therapy, you have to take a pill and be covered with lead sheets for protection.

Answer: Medical radiation therapy may be done several ways. Only for specific types of thyroid cancers do you take a pill. In most scenarios, you lay on a treatment table and the radiation is given much in the way that you'd get an X-ray. You won't feel the radiation and it is not painful. No lead shielding is used because the radiation is focused, and the small amount of scatter would not be blocked by a lead sheet.

Myth 4: Radiation treatments for breast cancer are painful.

Answer: On a daily basis, the radiation treatments themselves are never painful. In a few cases, you might have some discomfort or pain related to the positioning because usually you must have your arm raised over your head, as it would be for a breast exam. As treatment progresses, you might develop redness and warmth of the skin. Occasionally your skin will develop a sunburn, which can be painful. Your radiation oncologist will help you with skin care and pain medications if needed. The important thing to remember is that your skin will heal.

Myth 5: Radiation therapy causes horrible side effects.

Answer: Radiation to the breast does not cause vomiting or hair loss (other than underarm hair or other hair that may be within the direct radiation field). Patients having radiation for other cancers, such as stomach cancer or pancreatic cancer, may develop nausea and vomiting. Patients receiving radiation to the head (for example, to treat brain cancer) may lose their hair.

Next: 5 More Radiation Treatment Myths
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