After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, you may feel like you have landed in a new country, where you need to learn a new language. Your care team will help you understand unfamiliar topics and walk you through your choices.
Radiation therapy, along with surgery and medication treatment, is one of the tools your team has to help you fight your cancer. As part of your team, the radiation oncologist is the physician specialist who would help determine if this treatment is right for you.
What is radiation therapy?
Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to attack and destroy cancer cells while sparing the surrounding normal healthy tissues of your body. How is this possible?
By giving a little bit of radiation each day over several weeks, your body can heal while the cancer cells do not have that ability.
“This crucial difference is what allows us to use radiation as a precise weapon against cancer,” says Dr. Seth Kaufman of the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.
People with breast cancer may receive radiation treatment:
After surgery: Following a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) or breast-conserving surgery, radiation therapy can destroy remaining cancer cells.
- For metastatic cancer: Radiation therapy can help treat cancer that has spread beyond the breast, particularly if it is causing pain or other symptoms.
Is radiation therapy safe?
When people hear “radiation therapy,” they may be concerned. Why would anyone willingly undergo radiation? But “radiation therapy is safe and effective and can help stop cancer from spreading,” says Dr. Kaufman.
Just as X-rays can be used to safely image your breast with a mammogram or larger areas of your body with a CT scan, the same X-rays can be used to safely treat cancer cells a surgery may not be able to reach or drug therapy may not overcome.
Similar to surgery, radiation therapy is directed just to the area of your body in need of treatment: your breast and possibly nearby lymph nodes (if necessary). If cancer has spread to other parts of the body and is causing harmful symptoms (such as a painful spot in a bone) radiation can be a powerful tool to bring long-lasting relief quickly.
Does everyone with breast cancer need radiation?
Not necessarily. In most cases where only the lump of cancer is removed, radiation is needed to kill any cancer cells remaining in the breast. If the entire breast is removed with a mastectomy, radiation is only needed in certain situations of more advanced disease (very large tumors, cancers which have spread to lymph nodes under the arm, or tumors that cannot be fully removed with surgery).
If cancer has become metastatic or spread to other regions of the body, radiation is only needed to help control symptoms such as pain.
Who is involved in delivering my radiation treatment?
The radiation oncologist (radiation doctor) is the first member of the radiation team you will meet in consultation. But starting with your radiation planning session, you will begin to meet many other team members, including:
- Radiation therapists who will operate the CT scanner we use to “simulate” your treatment as well as the linear accelerator (radiation treatment machine) that will deliver your treatment each day.The radiation therapists are the team members you will see most frequently during your treatment; you will get to know them the very well.
- Nurses and medical assistants specifically trained in the field of radiotherapy. They will meet with you on your first day of treatment to review expectations and side effects, and will be available throughout your treatment should you have questions or need to be evaluated.
- Physicists and dosimetrists are the essential team members you may never meet. These are the people working out the details of the radiation plan your doctor has designed, and making sure the treatment machines and equipment are always performing safely and accurately.
What can I expect during my radiation therapy?
Your experience with the radiation portion of your cancer treatment begins with what we call a radiation planning session. This involves a brief CT scan in our department where you lie on a table in the exact position in which you will be treated each day.
Your doctor may place temporary marker stickers on your skin to help outline areas to be treated. Two or three barely visible permanent pinpoint tattoos will be placed on your skin as well to be used as reference points for your daily treatment.
Several days later, your daily five day per week treatment will begin. You will be in the radiation department for no more than one hour each day, and usually less. Your time lying quietly on the X-ray table while the treatment machine rotates around you is only about 15 to 20 minutes. During that time you will not feel any different, and radiation therapists may be moving in and out of the room to adjust your set-up.
While the treatment is being delivered, the staff members will be outside the room watching you on camera.
Learn More about Radiation Therapy
If radiation therapy is part of your breast cancer treatment plan, it can help to spend some time researching radiation treatments. Becoming familiar with the terms empowers you to understand and discuss all of your options with your care team. Baystate Health’s Consumer Health Library is a great place to start when looking for trustworthy information.
There are many other online resources available as well, including the American Cancer Society and the American Society for Radiation Oncology are great places to start. Your radiation physician can help direct you to other resources as well.
Make an appointment with one of our breast cancer radiation oncologists at: 413-794-9338 (option #3).
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