Radiotherapy and breast cancer
What is radiotherapy?
When is radiotherapy given?
How is treatment arranged?
Transport to the radiotherapy centre
Hints and tips – Raising your arm
How is radiotherapy given?
Will I have side-effects?
What are the common side-effects?
You might develop a skin reaction during or after treatment to your breast. The extent of this reaction will depend on a number of factors, including the dose of treatment given to you and the sensitivity of your skin. Skin reactions might be present and you might feel tenderness and itching of the skin in the treatment area 10–14 days after treatment begins. Your skin might flake as treatment goes on and it could become red, sore and weepy.
Even after you have finished your radiotherapy, the effects to your skin can continue to worsen for about another week afterwards. Everyone’s skin reacts differently to radiation. Your skin might become sore, while someone else’s is unaffected. Your healthcare team will check your skin frequently and give you suitable treatment for any reaction.
Pain or discomfort:
While you are having your treatment, you might have some aches, pains, twinges and swelling in the breast area now and then. These symptoms might continue for some time after treatment has finished. If treatment includes the centre or collarbone area, a small area of your gullet (oesophagus) could be affected. This might cause some heartburn and discomfort, but it usually improves with medication.
During the weeks when you are being treated, your body uses a lot of energy, so you might feel more tired than usual, especially as treatment goes on. The stress of a cancer diagnosis and the journey to hospital can all add to this tiredness (fatigue). Research suggests that a balance between exercise and rest can help with this feeling of fatigue. A healthy diet and fresh air may also help you.
For more information, contact the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre and ask for our booklet, Coping with Fatigue.
Sometimes part of the lung behind the treatment area becomes inflamed. This can cause a dry cough or shortness of breath. This usually heals by itself.
If you are a younger woman, you probably won’t be able to breastfeed your baby on your treated breast.
What are the late side-effects?
Other late side-effects
- Weakness of the bones in the area, for example, your ribs and collarbone.
- Damage to nerves in your arm, which can cause tingling, numbness, pain, weakness and possibly some loss of movement.
- Fibrosis of your upper lung, which can cause a dry cough and shortness of breath.
Hints and tips - Caring for yourself during and after radiotherapy
- Avoid using any perfumes, deodorants, dressings, creams or lotions in the treated area unless advised to do so by the radiotherapy staff.
- Wash the area gently with lukewarm water, either in a bath or shower, and pat dry with a soft towel. Do not rub the area. Some hospitals allow you to use a gentle, non-perfumed soap.
- Avoid exposing the treated area to direct sunlight for one year after treatment. When treatment is finished the skin in the treated area will be more at risk of burning, so it is important to keep this area covered or regularly apply a sunblock to the area.
- While you’re having your treatment avoid anything associated with extreme temperatures, such as heat pads, saunas, hot water bottles or cold packs.
- Soft cotton bras or vests will help you to feel comfortable, and you may find it more comfortable to go without a bra for a time after treatment.
- If you wear a prosthesis, you might find a soft lightweight one is better than your silicone one.
- A well-balanced, healthy diet with plenty of fluids can help your body to cope with the effects of treatment.
- Try not to expect too much of yourself during treatment because your energy levels will be low.
- Swimming in chlorinated water is not advisable during treatment and for 3 to 4 weeks after treatment.
- If you develop a skin reaction, it should be fully healed about 4 weeks after treatment. Nursing staff in the radiotherapy centre will advise you on how to take care of your skin.
Effects on other treatments
What can I expect after treatment?
How can I cope with radiotherapy?
You might find it helpful to visit the centre beforehand, so you know what to expect. If you are feeling low, tired, anxious or tearful at any point during or after your treatment, remember that you are not alone. There are many people who can help you. Try to let other people know how you feel, particularly your family and friends, so that they can support you.
For information on counselling services or individual support, call the Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre.