Effects of Breast Cancer Radiation on the Body
Radiation therapy uses high-powered x-rays to kill cancer
cells. It’s a type of targeted therapy often used in breast cancer treatment.
The radiation may be aimed at the tumor site, the lymph nodes, or the chest
wall. It attempts to stop cancer from spreading or decrease the risk of
External radiation treatment is typically given five times
per week, for five to seven weeks. A newer approach (accelerated breast
irradiation), gives larger doses of radiation over three weeks. Most people
tolerate radiation therapy well.
Your doctor may recommend internal radiation
(brachytherapy). This is a procedure in which tiny pieces of radioactive
material are placed around the tumor site. Total treatment time can range from
hours to about a week. There are fewer short-term side effects with targeted
therapy, and it spares healthy tissue. According to BreastCancer.org,
the long-term side effects of this method are not yet known.
Short-Term Side Effects of Breast Cancer Radiation
The most common side effect of radiation therapy is skin
irritation in the targeted area. After the first few treatments, your skin may
feel sensitive and begin to turn pink. It may eventually start to look and feel
like a sunburn, with itching, peeling, or blistering. Soreness and tenderness
are common. Any irritation may get worse as treatment continues. However, you
can expect it to get better in the weeks following your final treatment.
You might lose underarm hair if the radiation was targeted
to your underarm area. You might also perspire less under that arm. These side
effects are usually temporary.
Many women undergoing breast cancer radiation experience fatigue
as the weeks pass. Fatigue almost always begins to improve within a few weeks
of the last treatment.
Because it’s administered daily over many weeks,
conventional external beam radiation therapy is a huge time commitment. The
process can interfere with work and family responsibilities, especially if you
lack transportation or don’t live close to a treatment facility.
You should plan on being there for 30 minutes to an hour,
even though the actual treatment only takes about 10 minutes. Getting in
position takes time and precision. The hectic daily schedule may cause you
emotional upset, stress, or anxiety.
Long-Term Side Effects
Because radiation is targeted to a specific area of your
body, your radiation team will spend a lot of time on “marking” before your
They’ll take careful measurements to check and double-check
that the radiation will hit the correct area and nothing else. Then they’ll
make small ink marks on your skin to use as a guide for future treatments.
These marks are typically tattooed onto your skin permanently.
It could take months or years for skin to return to normal
color if it gets significantly darker at the site of radiation. In some cases,
minor discoloration may be permanent, or skin may appear thicker or firmer.
Skin sensitivity or tenderness can sometimes last for months.
Radiation can cause some nerve damage resulting in numbness
and pain. Radiation therapy can limit your reconstruction options or your
ability to breastfeed. You should discuss these risks with your doctor before
you begin treatment.
Rare Side Effects
If you had lymph nodes removed before getting radiation,
you’re at increased risk of a blockage of the lymph system (lymphedema). This can
cause swelling of the arm where the nodes were removed.
Other rare complications include:
- fractured rib due to a weakened rib cage
- inflamed lung tissue
- heart damage when radiation is given on the left
side of the chest
- secondary cancer caused by radiation
Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing shortness of breath,
trouble swallowing, or chest pain.
Dealing with Breast Cancer Radiation Side Effects
You can’t necessarily avoid side effects of radiation
therapy, but there are some things you can do to minimize them.
Wear loose-fitting clothing if you’re experiencing skin
irritation. If you wear a bra, choose one without underwire.
Ask your doctor if there are special products you should use
on your skin while bathing. Check with your medical team before using ointments
or creams on the treated area. Try not to rub or scratch the area, and avoid
ice packs and heating pads.
Fight fatigue by getting plenty of rest. Give your body the
nutrition it needs to repair itself. Report any side effects to your radiation