Radiation treatment

This is the use of radiation (rays of energy called photons or little particles called electrons) to destroy cancer cells, usually using a machine called a Linear Accelerator. You will see a radiation oncologist who will discuss this treatment with you.

A radiation therapist explaining treatment

By Louise Goossens.

Image above: The radiation therapist will explain your treatment to you.

Treatment is carefully planned to reduce any effect on normal cells. Before you start a course of radiation you will need at least one visit to the cancer centre to work out the exact position you will lie in during treatment (this is called simulation). Simulation involves a CT scan and a computerised treatment plan.

Treatment is given four to five days a week over about four to five weeks. It is painless and only takes a few minutes for each treatment.

An extra radiation ‘boost dose’ may be given to the area where the breast cancer was located, taking the overall treatment time up to five to six weeks.

Giving radiation to part of the breast (partial breast irradiation) is currently being investigated as an alternative to giving radiation to the whole breast in certain patients. Radiation is routine if a wide local excision is carried out.

The Linear Accelerator is positioned to deliver treatment to where it is needed

By Louise Goosens.

Image above: The Linear Accelerator is positioned to deliver treatment to where it is needed. (c): There is a handle to hold as well as supports under the arms so you can just lie back and relax.

Sometimes, radiation is given after mastectomy and axillary surgery to reduce the likelihood of developing recurrence in/ over the chest wall or in the axillary or supraclavicular (above the collar bone) lymph nodes. This decision is usually made once the results of the surgery are available and the risks for recurrence in these sites have been assessed.

Radiation may also be used for the treatment of recurrence or cancers that cannot be removed, either in the area of the breast or in other parts of the breast. The aim is to try to control the disease or reduce symptoms. This usually requires fewer visits.

“It’s like an X-ray machine. No worries. You’ve got a comfortable room, music going, then it’s over.” Milly

Side effects of radiation treatment

Early side effects of radiation treatment, most of which short term may include:

  • General tiredness
  • Some reddening or 'sunburning' of the skin Follow the advice of your radiation therapist on skin care and underarm hygiene.
  • your breast may feel firmer

If you are having radiation treatment you should get extra rest and regular exercise to help cope with the tiredness.

Try to wear loose cotton clothing whenever possible to reduce any irritation to the area having the radiation. Talk with your doctor or the radiation treatment staff about any possible side effects and how to manage them. Phone your local Cancer Society for a copy of the booklet Radiation Treatment/ Haumanu Iraruke, download the booklet from our website, or call the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237) for a copy.

Late side effects, which develop many months or years later, may include skin changes, changes in size, shape, colour, or feel of the breast. Radiation to the lymph nodes can increase the risk of developing lymphoedema.

If you live a long way from the nearest cancer centre, you will need to stay nearby during your radiation treatment. Oncology centres have special accommodation close by.

"I'd always been proud of having really long hair and I think I coped well. I got it cut shorter and shorter as I came up to treatment." June