Radiation therapy is one of the most popular methods of breast cancer treatment, however it has evolved tremendously over the years.
Radiation is designed in two different types: external or internal.
Radiation treatments that are external are done using a highly focused, high energy beam of light utilized to annihilate cancer cells and their surrounding tissue. The beam of light can not be seen with your eyes but it can pass through your skin because it is semi-transparent. Cancer cells are composed differently, therefore they react differently to treatments.
Healthy cells are in the path of the radiation and are affected by it. But, as cancer cells are actively dividing and growing in abnormal ways, their function is more readily interrupted. They may absorb a much higher percentage of the radiative energy than healthy cells. That energy kills the cancer cells. The beam may also destroy the blood vessels around the tumor that the cancer generates in order to feed itself.
Internal radiation therapy, sometimes called brachytherapy, is more akin to chemotherapy. But rather than using drugs per se to affect a chemical change, a small amount of radioactive material is implanted. That material ejects radiation that targets cancer cells, killing them from the inside.
Internal radiation therapy isn’t as common as external. But just like with any other treatment method when and how it is utilized is something that is determined after you meet with a specialist.
Radiation therapy is usually used before or with another treatment. After an individual undergoes a modified mastectomy, their oncologist could recommend that they also receive a course of radiation treatment that lasts six to eight weeks.
The optimal goal of radiation treatment is to make sure that any cancerous cells not removed by the surgeon are destroyed through radiation treatment. Radiation treatment is a treatment that isn’t as intense because using radiation to completely rid the body of cancer would require both longer and higher doses.
Similarly, radiation treatments may accompany chemotherapy. Since each case is unique, the patient and oncologist will determine what’s best for each person. In other cases, it may be used solely to relieve symptoms without any expectation of cure.
Despite the high energy in the beam, radiation treatments themselves are painless. There are often uncomfortable side effects, however.
Radiation treatments can produce fatigue, particularly in the later stages of treatment. Treatments are often given five days a week for several weeks, sometimes twice per day. In these cases, the fatigue can last for a few weeks or longer after treatment ends.
Problematic skin is a fairly common side effect. Because radiation is absorbed by some of the breast tissue an individual might experience redness, soreness, and itching. They might notice decreased sensation on and about the breast, under the arm and even nearby areas. Radiation doesn’t cause hair loss unless it is applied directly to the head, which typically isn’t the case during breast cancer treatment.
In some instances that are more intense the immune system can be compromised especially if an individual is having radiation applied to their lymph nodes. Both the lymph nodes and the vessels that connect to them are a necessary part of the immune system and radiation treatment can potentially work to increase their effectiveness.
Fortunately radiation side effects are usually pretty short. Except for in extreme instances lymph nodes, organs, and other bodily functions and components are not destroyed completely or harmed beyond repair during the course of radiation treatment. Their function, however, could be hindered for a period of time but the body is capable of quickly recovering.