Many people receive radiation therapy after breast cancer surgery. The goal of radiation is to kill cancer cells that may remain, even after successful surgery. Killing these cells helps prevent a recurrence. This treatment uses targeted radiation to destroy cancer cells in people who have had a lumpectomy, as well as in some patients who have had a mastectomy. Radiation works together with surgery and chemotherapy to help cure patients of breast cancer. Typically, when patients do get chemotherapy and radiation, radiation comes last.
UPMC Pinnacle offers the most advanced approaches to radiation therapy. These include standard external beam radiation, hypofractionated (short-course) radiation, and balloon breast brachytherapy.
UPMC Pinnacle Breast Care Center’s radiation oncologists consider several things when planning your treatment. These include the type of breast surgery you received, the location of your cancer and the stage of your cancer. A standard course of radiation therapy for breast cancer includes five days of treatment a week. Treatment itself only takes about 15 minutes each day, and patients do not feel anything while the treatment is delivered. A course of radiation usually lasts for between four to six weeks.
Side effects are caused by the cumulative effect of radiation on the cells. This means that many people don’t experience any side effects until they are a few weeks into their treatment. Side effects are directly related to the area of the body that is being treated. Most are temporary.
Skin irritation, swelling in the breast and fatigue are common short-term side effects. Long-term side effects may develop months or years after radiation therapy. They can include darkening or “tanning” of the skin, rib fracture, heart complications and lymphedema (swelling of the breast or arm). Another side effect can be radiation pneumonitis. This is a rare pneumonia-like condition caused by radiation-induced lung damage.
Most patients tolerate radiation therapy well. Many people stay active during their treatment. UPMC Pinnacle Breast Care Center offers many supportive services. These can help you manage the side effects of radiation therapy.
External beam radiation uses special machines. They administer a high dose of radiation directly to the cancer site. A small amount of healthy tissue at the margins of the tumor is also affected. Different machines are used for tumors of various types or in different locations in the body.
Recently, studies have shown that, for many (but not all) patients, a four week course of radiation is just as effective as a six week course of radiation, with no difference in side effects. UPMC Pinnacle physicians offer short-course radiation to appropriate patients in order to reduce their overall treatment time.
Some patients with early-stage breast cancer may choose to receive balloon breast brachytherapy. It is a kind of internal radiation therapy that is used after a lumpectomy. A balloon with a special tube at the end is placed where the tumor was by the surgeon. A radioactive seed is placed through the tube into the balloon for a few minutes. The radiation is used to kill any remaining cancer cells. The seed is removed after several minutes. Balloon breast brachytherapy requires a shorter treatment period. A total of 10 treatments are usually given over five days. The balloon is removed when the treatment is done. Sometimes, what is found at surgery shows that a patient is not a candidate for balloon brachytherapy, and the balloon is removed. These patients then receive either standard external beam or hypofractionated radiation.
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center at the Rocco and Nancy Ortenzio Cancer Pavilion
Located at UPMC Pinnacle West Shore Campus
2035 Technology Parkway
Mechanicsburg, PA 17050
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center
Located at Medical Sciences Pavilion
4300 Londonderry Road
Harrisburg, PA 17109
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