Breast Cancer Treatment Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, or “radiotherapy,” is a way of treating breast tumors that eliminates diseased cells and relieves symptoms. Many breast cancer patients receive high doses of radiation as part of their cancer treatment regimen.

Radiation therapy uses high energy X-rays aimed at tumors or parts of the breast that are flush with cancer cells. Radiation works by damaging the cells’ DNA, so they can no longer reproduce.

When is Radiation Therapy Used?

Radiation therapy is either used to shrink tumors prior to surgery, or following surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. Together with chemotherapy, radiation is effective as a treatment for cancer in its early stages, often eliminating the need for surgery.

There are two types of radiation therapy: external and internal.

External Radiation Therapy

External radiation therapy uses beams of radiation from a machine to destroy tumors. The two most common types of external radiotherapy are:

  • Intensity modulation radiotherapy (IMRT), which consists of many narrow beams intersecting the tumor. This results in a high dose to the tumor, low dosage to healthy tissue and a low rate of radiation side effects. IMRT permits the treatment of tumors that are complex in shape and of considerable size.
  • Hyperthermia therapy utilizes ultrasound or other frequencies to elevate the temperature of cancer cells in a localized area or region of advanced primary cancer. Hyperthermia is an effective treatment for those cancers that are heat sensitive, and is even more effective when combined with other types of radiation therapy.

Internal Radiation Therapy

When concerned about damage to normal tissues or the length of time required to administer a series of external radiation treatments, the oncologist can use brachytherapy, an internal method of radiation. Breast brachytherapy can take five days instead of the five to seven weeks for external radiation therapy, and it results in fewer side effects.

During brachytherapy, a radioactive source–such as cesium or radium–is surgically implanted in or near the tumor for as long as is required. This exposes the tumor to high-dose radiation directly, while reducing the exposure to normal tissue.

During a new type of brachytherapy technique, pellets containing the radioactive source are inserted into the breast for a short time on each day of the treatment and then removed so that the patient is able to interact with other people.

Radiation Therapy Side Effects

While high levels of radiation can damage normal tissues, the strategy behind this treatment is that the overall benefit to the patient will be greater than the associated side effects.

Breast cancer radiation side effects include the following:

  • Edema (fluid buildup in the tissues that makes the breast feel larger, firmer and heavier)
  • Fatigue
  • Local skin irritation (reddening, dryness and itching)
  • Nausea.

Medication may be available to help alleviate symptoms of radiation therapy. If you’re experiencing uncomfortable symptoms as a result of your treatment, talk to your oncologist.


The American Cancer Society. (2009). Breast cancer facts and figures 2009-2010. Retrieved October 13, 2010, from

National Institute of Cancer. (2010). Breast cancer treatment. Retrieved October 18, 2010, from