Breast cancer treatment can happen in various forms, but radiation therapy has always been a benefitting option for any breast cancer. Depending on the stage and type of cancer, it is possible to use radiation alone as a breast cancer treatment choice. There are different schedules and radiation therapy types meant for breast cancer, and you should know everything about it to be prepared for the treatment.
What Does Radiation Therapy mean?
The National Cancer Institute states that radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells.
Radiation slows or kills cancer growth cells. While it affects healthy cells, these cells generally recover after ending the radiation course of breast cancer treatment. Doctors protect healthy cells through:
- Using the possible low radiation dose
- Spreading treatment over time
- Aiming radiation at the specific body part
Breast Cancer Radiotherapy Side Effects
People are different, and different side effects can appear in different people. However, more chances are that you won’t have all the mentioned side effects. Talk to the healthcare team when you want to know how to deal with the side effects.
Short-Term Side Effects
Breast cancer treatment radiation side effects begin with breast cancer treatment, and they can turn worse with the passing time. They typically continue for around 2 to 4 weeks after finishing the treatment.
Weakness And Tiredness
You can feel exhausted during radiotherapy breast cancer treatment. The condition degrades as the treatment progresses. You can also become weak with less energy. In such cases, it’s good to rest when you want to.
Tiredness carries for a few weeks after the treatment, but it can gradually improve.
Many things can work to lessen tiredness and cope with it, like exercise and diet. Research shows that gentle exercise provides more energy. It is vital to balance exercise after resting.
Sometimes skin feels sensitive and tender to touch. It is helpful to let the therapy nurse or specialist nurse know any side effects. Putting a cool pad over the area also helps you get relief. The condition improves soon after finishing the breast cancer treatment.
The skin can become dark or red in the area of treatment. You get darkening or redness in body parts. It is when radiotherapy beams leave the body. But the skin turns darker in that region.
Your skin might also become sore. The radiographer offers creams for soothing skin. The soreness typically goes away towards the final 2 to 4 weeks of breast cancer treatment.
The skin can break down towards radiotherapy’s end, generally under the breast. The nurse uses special dressings to cover and protect the area. The area generally heals in a few weeks. Make sure to inform the doctors at the radiotherapy clinic when you notice changes in the skin.
Hair Loss In The Armpit
The hair can fall out in the area under the arm (armpit) on the side that has been treated. You can lose hair anywhere within the area of breast cancer treatment. It happens around ten days after the beginning of the treatment and takes some weeks and months to grow back. For a few people, it doesn’t grow back.
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With radiotherapy, it becomes difficult for fluid to drain from breast tissue. It causes swelling of the chest or breast area. Doctors know this condition as lymphedema.
The swelling generally goes down a few weeks after starting the breast cancer treatment. Tell the radiographers or doctors when it does not. They might refer you to a lymphedema specialist. You can have a massage known as lymphatic drainage to get relief.
Facing Problems With Shoulder And Arm Movement
Radiotherapy makes moving the shoulder and arms hard, affecting your day-to-day work. Generally, the pain improves after finishing breast cancer treatment. Physiotherapists suggest appropriate exercises for help.
It is vital to continue the arm exercises that doctors showed you after the surgery. It makes it simple to lift the arm to the right position in radiotherapy. It is also helpful in avoiding stiffness from the shoulder and arm.
Some Long Term Radiotherapy Side Effects
Many side effects of radiation breast cancer treatment generally come in months or weeks after breast cancer treatment. After some side effects start, it can take time to show up, generally after months and years.
Many side effects listed here are not common. You can get one or two of them. You can try these things to cope with any side effects you get.
Some people might have an arm swelling known as lymphedema after surgery or radiotherapy to the armpit. It’s best to avoid such swelling, and there are treatments for controlling it after it happens.
Changes In The Skin
The treatment area looks permanently tanned after finishing breast cancer treatment. The process is not harmful. Later, you might have small broken veins in the skin known as telangiectasia.
You can camouflage skin changes with makeup, and the doctor also prescribes it. Lots of colors are there for skin tones. Many clinical nurse specialists are trained in showing the right way to apply it.
Changes In The Size, Feel, And Breast Shape
In time radiotherapy leads to changes in breast tissue for changing shape or becoming smaller in size. It happens to the reconstructed breast or the natural breast tissue.
After radiotherapy breast cancer treatment, the breast can become hard and wouldn’t become stretchy. It is because of the side effect known as radiation fibrosis. The side effect is mild.
Sometimes the breast shrinks over time. The radiotherapy makes breast tissue contract, so the breast becomes small. A reconstructed breast implant can turn stiff (capsular contracture) and might need replacement.
You should report any changes to the surgeon as they can fix these issues with some breast cancer treatment surgical adjustments to get a better appearance.
Breathlessness happens in a few people with chest area radiotherapy, but rare. The issues are because of changes in lung tissues known as chronic radiation pneumonitis. These problems start months or years after breast cancer treatment.
Your doctor should know that if you get any breathing changes or cough up mucus, you should get some tests to check your lung function. The general treatment therapy is prescribing steroids or other medicine for easy breathing.
Radiotherapy makes bones in the breast cancer treatment areas weaker after some years. It causes pain and also increases fracture risk. When needed, the doctors and nurses check the bone strength with a bone density (DEXA) scan. Tell them when you have rib or shoulder pain.
Side Effects In The Heart
After many years of radiotherapy breast cancer treatment in the left breast, some people might face hard changes. However, it is rare.
Treatment Area Nerve Damage
Radiotherapy scarring causes nerve damage on the arm’s treated side, developing after many years of the treatment.
Some symptoms of this condition are numbness, tingling, weakness, and pain. Some people can get movement loss in the shoulder and arm. Consult your doctor when you get any such symptoms.
Radiotherapy breast cancer treatment can result in other cancer types over many years. Such types are rare, and the doctor talks about such risks.
The short-term external-beam side effects from breast cancer radiation treatment are:
- Breast swelling
- Changes in breast cancer treatment are like a sunburn (skin peeling, redness, skin darkening)
Most doctors advise patients to avoid sun exposure after treatment, making skin changes worse. Most skin changes become better in some months. Breast tissue changes generally go away in 6 to 12 months, but it takes longer.
External Radiation Side Effects
External beam radiation therapy also results in some side effects later:
- After radiation therapy, some women may notice their breasts becoming smaller to skin becoming swollen or firm.
- Radiation can impact breast reconstruction. It can also have some risks to appearance and healing when provided after reconstruction, especially processes of tissue flaps.
- Women who went through radiation breast cancer treatment would be able to breastfeed from the radiated breast.
- Breast radiation sometimes damages some arm nerves. The medical term for this process is brachial plexopathy, and it results in pain, numbness, and weakness in the arm, hand, and shoulder.
- Underarm lymph node radiation can result in lymphedema, a pain that causes arm or chest swelling.
- In many cases, radiation therapy weakens the ribs resulting in fractures. Earlier, some parts of the heart and lungs were more likely to have radiation, resulting in long-term damage to such organs in women. Modern equipment for radiation therapy focuses on radiation beams much better than old machines, so such issues are rare nowadays.
- A rare radiation complication to the breast is getting another cancer known as angiosarcoma.
Coping With Side Effects
Let the nurse doctor know when you notice any breast cancer radiation treatment side effects and don’t worry too much about anything. You get regular appointments for around five years when the breast cancer treatment ends. You can talk to nurses or doctors during such appointments. However, you won’t have to look for another appointment when you’ve got any side effects or are worried about side effects occurring. At University Cancer Centers, we treat all types of stages of breast cancer with care, and the most researched breast cancer treatment approaches. Our leading-edge hospital care technologies with experienced practitioners ensure that you’re under expert care and have a speedy recovery.