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Breast Cancer Radiation Methods

Radiation Kills Cancer Cells, Reduces Risk of Recurrence


Updated July 14, 2011

You may need breast radiation treatments after a lumpectomy, or a mastectomy, if your lymph nodes contained cancer cells or your tumor was 5cm or larger. Radiation is done to kill any cancer cells that may remain in your breast, axillary tissue, or chest wall. Radiation treatments are usually done in a clinic on an outpatient basis. High-energy X-ray beams will be aimed at your treatment area to damage any fast-growing cancer cells. Radiation breaks the DNA in your cancer cells, so they cannot divide and multiply. Your non-cancerous cells can survive radiation treatments.

Breast Cancer Radiation Treatment Methods

External Beam Radiation

External Beam Radiation Machine
Photo © National Cancer Institute

External beam is the most common type of breast radiation treatment. From outside your body, collimated beams of radiation will be aimed by a machine at your treatment area. You may need radiation to your whole breast, or only to a small area. If your lymph nodes or chest wall needs treatment, those can also be radiated. Treatments will not start until after you have healed from breast surgery, or completed chemotherapy, if you need it. You will need to set aside time for treatments every weekday for six or seven weeks, for a standard course of breast radiation treatments. The time needed for each treatment is short, but allow time for setup and careful positioning to provide for the most effective and safe treatment for you.

Accelerated Breast Irradiation

For some patients, radiation treatments can be given over a relatively short period of time. Accelerated radiation can be given to the entire breast or just a part of your breast, in which case it is called Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation (APBI). Some radiologists now give slightly larger doses of radiation over a three weeks, cutting in half the standard six-week regimen. This method of breast radiation seems to work as well as the standard program. If larger doses of radiation can be given, a patient may receive the whole dosage over a five-day period.

Internal Breast Radiation - Brachytherapy

SAVI Radiation Applicator Placement
Photo © Cianna Medical

Internal breast radiation is done after a lumpectomy, and uses small seeds or pellets of radioactive material to deliver a dose of radiation from within your breast tissue. The dose of radiation is given directly to the tumor bed, and greatly reduces potential damage to your nearby healthy breast tissue. The size and location of your tumor will determine whether or not you are a good candidate for brachytherapy. There are several types of brachytherapy:

Radiation During Breast Surgery

An experimental method of intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is in clinical trials in the United States. IORT uses one large dose of radiation, given directly into the tumor bed, after the tumor has been removed with a lumpectomy and the incision is still open. After this type of radiation, your incision is closed, and you do not need any further radiation therapy. In order to be a good candidate for this type of treatment, your surgical margins must be clear of cancer, and for now you must participate in a clinical trial.

Choosing The Best Radiation Method

Before or after your breast surgery, your doctor will discuss your options for radiation with you. Your choice of radiation treatments will be determined by several details of your diagnosis:

Taking Good Care of Yourself During Radiation Treatments

Radiation for breast cancer is considered a local therapy, which affects only the area that is treated. The treatments are painless, and each treatment takes about 30 minutes. You may have mild side effects from radiation. But taking good care of your skin, and alerting your doctor to any skin problems is important to your recovery. Remember that breast radiation greatly reduces your risk of recurrence, and increases your survival.

American Cancer Society. Detailed Guide: Breast Cancer. Radiation Therapy. Last Revised: 03/02/2009.

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