Radiation therapy is targeted treatment of your cancer. The purpose of this treatment is to eliminate any cancer cell that may have been left in and around where your tumor was located. You may have radiation treatments immediately following your surgery (if you are not going to have chemotherapy treatments) or after all of your chemotherapy [chemotherapy] treatments are completed.
Radiation may have some side effects while you are undergoing the treatments. Some women get them and some don’t. The most common side effect is fatigue – eating a high protein diet may help fight radiation fatigue.
The other common side effect is burns. They can range from a slight tingling sensation to blisters and peeling, like a severe sunburn. There are several creams that help this. One highly recommended cream is Biafine cream.
The biggest drawback to undergoing radiation therapy is the fact that you have to go every day, five days a week, Monday through Friday, with the weekend off, generally for six to eight weeks.
Types of Radiation Treatments
There are several types of radiation available. First is external radiation.
Before your external radiation treatment, you will be “mapped”. In mapping, an x-ray or a CT scan is done to show the radiation oncologist where your lungs and heart are. He will measure to see exactly where they need to point the radiation beam in order to avoid those organs to the extent possible. You will be marked with a small, permanent tattoo that looks like a dot on your skin.
The actual treatment is really very easy. You lie on a table that has a large machine above it. The technician makes sure the tattoo marks on your body match up with the machine and then they leave the room and turn on the radiation. The treatment itself lasts for only a minute or so and does not hurt.
Another type of treatment is implanted radiation or “brachytherapy”. This is where the radioactive material is stored in a small seed-like “container” that is then implanted into the tumor area. The seed gives off a slow, continuous dose of radiation. The purpose of this type of therapy is to minimize the extent to which healthy tissue or organs are affected. The seeds that hold the radioactive material, once in place, are highly targeted and very precise. This type of treatment is being studied to see if this method of delivery is better than external radiation.
Long-term Effects of Radiation
When determining how best to attack your cancer, it is be hard to think ahead to what may happen many years in the future, but there are long-term side effects that may result from your radiation treatment that should be considered; even though they are less common than short-term ones, these side effects should still be taken into account when making decisions about radiation therapy. Be sure to talk to your doctor about possible long-term risks associated with the treatment you are getting.
Radiation can damage normal cells, and sometimes this damage can have long-term effects. For example, radiation to the chest area may affect the lungs or heart. In some people this may cause scarring, which can affect a person’s ability to do things, such as exercise. Radiation can also lead to fluid build-up and swelling in parts of the body, a problem called lymphedema.
Another long-term risk linked to radiation treatment is the risk of getting a second cancer at some point in the future (e.g. leukemia). A second cancer may develop many years later, and is caused by the radiation damage to healthy tissues. The risk of this happening is relatively small but real.
Radiation therapy has steadily improved over the past few decades. Treatments now target the cancers more precisely, and more is known about choosing the best radiation doses. More precise radiation means less damage to nearby, healthy tissues. This often means fewer long-term side effects. These advances may also reduce the number of second cancers that result from radiation treatment, but this is not yet known.
Personal note: My original plan of having radiation treatment after my chemotherapy was completely changed once I learned about my genetic predisposition to getting breast cancer and potentially ovarian cancer. Instead I opted for a double mastectomy and a full hysterectomy and oophorectomy. Since there was no tissue left to treat, radiation was no longer necessary, so I did not have any radiation therapy done.