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Some women with breast cancer will be recommended radiotherapy as part of their treatment.

Radiotherapy is sometimes referred to as radiation therapy. It involves the use of X-rays to destroy cancer cells that may be left in the breast and/or axilla (armpit) after your surgery.

Does everybody with breast cancer have radiotherapy?

Not all women with breast cancer will be recommended to have radiotherapy. It is usually recommended, however, for women who have breast-conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy). Radiotherapy is sometimes used following a mastectomy to target any cancer cells that may remain in the chest wall. If you are having chemotherapy as well as radiotherapy, you will usually have your chemotherapy treatment first.

What will happen?

If radiotherapy is being considered for you, you will be referred to a radiation oncologist. Before starting your radiotherapy treatment, the radiation oncologist will meet with you to discuss your treatment. A CT scan will be taken of your chest so that the area to be targeted by the radiotherapy can be determined. If you have had breast conserving surgery, you will have radiotherapy on the part of your breast where the cancer was, and if you have had a mastectomy, you will have radiotherapy on your chest wall. Some women will also have radiotherapy on their armpit or neck.

Radiotherapy is typically administered every day (except weekends) for three to six weeks. Each treatment takes only a few minutes, although sometimes you may have to wait for a radiotherapy machine to become available.

If you live in a rural area you may need to go to a major regional centre or city to have radiotherapy. Some women need to spend up to six weeks away from home as a result. If you would like more information on this, please visit the rural section of our website.

Side effects

Radiotherapy can have a number of side effects, including burns to the skin at the treatment site. While radiotherapy is painless, after a few weeks you may notice that your skin starts to go red and blister. Women who have had a mastectomy tend to experience worse burns because the skin on the chest wall is the target of the radiotherapy. Women who have had breast conserving surgery tend to experience lesser burns because the radiotherapy targets their breast tissue and not their skin.

For tips on how to care for your skin, refer to the Taking care of your skin section. If you are at all worried about your skin, you may like to talk to your radiation oncologist about skin care.

  • Changes in the skin colour. Your skin may become darker during treatment.
  • Changes in skin thickness. Your skin may become tougher or thicker after treatment.
  • Fatigue (tiredness) – it is normal to feel tired during the weeks in which you are having radiotherapy.
  • Tenderness in the breast and/or chest.
  • Swelling of the breast.
  • Loss of appetite.
I organised to have radiotherapy every morning at 8.00 am and then I’d go off to work. I got pretty tired towards the end of treatment but it didn’t muck up my life too much. – Lynette

Tips

  • Find out if there are any special parking spots available where you have radiotherapy. Sometimes parking spots are reserved, or parking fees reduced, for people having radiotherapy.
  • Talk to your breast care nurse or a member of the radiotherapy team about how to look after your skin during and after treatment. They will be able to recommend some mild soaps and creams or moisturisers that are suitable to treat radiotherapy burns. Your breast care nurse can also help with dressings if you need them.
  • Wear soft cotton tops to reduce irritation to your skin.
The best advice I received was from my aunt, who said wearing a pure cotton T-shirt under her bra reduced her skin problems. – Caryn

More information

  • The Radiation Oncology: Targeting Cancer website, developed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists, has further information on radiation oncology.
  • The My Journey Kit has information about radiotherapy including questions to ask your doctors, and information on skin care during and after radiotherapy.
  • Our online network is a great resource if you feel like talking to others online and sharing experiences.
  • The Westmead Breast Cancer Institute has a Radiotherapy section containing extensive information about side effects and some tips to care for your skin. 
  • The eviQ Cancer Treatments Online website contains a fact sheet on radiotherapy and its side effects, and another fact sheet about caring for your skin during radiotherapy for breast cancer.