Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is a process that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. Radiation done after surgery can kill cancer cells that may not be seen during surgery. Radiation also may be done:

  • Prior to surgery to shrink the tumor.
  • In combination with chemotherapy.
  • As a palliative treatment (therapy that relieves symptoms, such as pain, but does not alter the course of the disease).

There are two ways to deliver radiation therapy. However, external radiation is the usual type that is used for treatment of breast cancer. Consider the following:

  • External radiation (external beam therapy) – a treatment that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. The machine is controlled by the radiation therapist. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors, special shields may be used to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes.
  • Internal radiation (brachytherapy, implant radiation) – radiation is given inside the body as close to the cancer as possible. Substances that produce radiation, called radioisotopes, may be implanted directly into the breast tumor. Internal radiation involves giving a higher dose of radiation in a shorter time span than with external radiation. Internal radiation for breast cancer is currently being studied and is considered experimental.

A radiation oncologist will plan your radiation treatment based on your medical history, a physical examination, pathology and laboratory reports, and previous mammograms and surgeries. Your chest area will be marked with ink that must stay on your skin for the course of your treatments. These markings assure that the radiation will be given to the exact area requiring treatment.

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Side effects of radiation therapy

As each person’s individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team any/all possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins. Possible side effects that may occur during or following radiation for breast cancer include:

  • Fatigue (especially during the later weeks of treatment).
  • Skin problems in the treated area, including soreness, itching, peeling and/or redness. Toward the end of treatment, the skin may become moist and weepy.
  • Decreased sensation in the breast tissue or under the arm.

In most cases, the effects of radiation on the skin are temporary and the skin involved in the treated area will heal upon completion of treatment.

A radiation oncologist carefully monitors the intensity and length of each treatment, and the area being treated. In addition, you will have regular physical examinations during the course of your treatments.

More information
For more information, refer to the VCU Medical Center's radiation oncology department.