Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It affects cells only in the part of the body that is treated. Radiation therapy may be used after surgery to destroy breast cancer cells that remain in the area.
Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer. Some women receive both types:
External radiation therapy: The radiation comes from a large machine outside the body. You will go to a hospital or clinic for treatment. Treatments are usually 5 days a week for 4 to 6 weeks. External radiation is the most common type used for breast cancer.
Internal radiation therapy (implant radiation therapy or brachytherapy): The doctor places one or more thin tubes inside the breast through a tiny incision. A radioactive substance is loaded into the tube. The treatment session may last for a few minutes, and the substance is removed. When it’s removed, no radioactivity remains in your body. Internal radiation therapy may be repeated every day for a week.
Side effects depend mainly on the dose and type of radiation. It’s common for the skin in the treated area to become red, dry, tender, and itchy. Your breast may feel heavy and tight. Internal radiation therapy may make your breast look red or bruised. These problems usually go away over time.
Bras and tight clothes may rub your skin and cause soreness. You may want to wear loose-fitting cotton clothes during this time.
Gentle skin care also is important. You should check with your doctor before using any deodorants, lotions, or creams on the treated area. Toward the end of treatment, your skin may become moist and “weepy.” Exposing this area to air as much as possible can help the skin heal. After treatment is over, the skin will slowly heal. However, there may be a lasting change in the color of your skin.
You’re likely to become very tired during radiation therapy, especially in the later weeks of treatment. Resting is important, but doctors usually advise patients to try to stay active, unless it leads to pain or other problems.
You may wish to discuss with your doctor the possible long-term effects of radiation therapy. For example, radiation therapy to the chest may harm the lung or heart. Also, it can change the size of your breast and the way it looks. If any of these problems occur, your health care team can tell you how to manage them
The time it takes to heal after surgery is different for each woman. Surgery causes pain and tenderness. Medicine can help control the pain. Before surgery, you should discuss the plan for pain relief with your doctor or nurse. After surgery, your doctor can adjust the plan if you need more relief.
Any kind of surgery also carries a risk of infection, bleeding, or other problems. You should tell your health care team right away if you develop any problems.
You may feel off balance if you’ve had one or both breasts removed. You may feel more off balance if you have large breasts. This imbalance can cause discomfort in your neck and back.
Also, the skin where your breast was removed may feel tight. Your arm and shoulder muscles may feel stiff and weak. These problems usually go away. The doctor, nurse, or physical therapist can suggest exercises to help you regain movement and strength in your arm and shoulder. Exercise can also reduce stiffness and pain. You may be able to begin gentle exercise within days of surgery.
Because nerves may be injured or cut during surgery, you may have numbness and tingling in your chest, underarm, shoulder, and upper arm. These feelings usually go away within a few weeks or months. But for some women, numbness does not go away.
Removing the lymph nodes under the arm slows the flow of lymph fluid. The fluid may build up in your arm and hand and cause swelling. This swelling is called lymphedema. It can develop soon after surgery or months or even years later. You’ll always need to protect the arm and hand on the treated side of your body from cuts, burns, or other injuries
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