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Radiotherapy

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

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

Does everybody with breast cancer have radiotherapy? 

Not all people with breast cancer will be recommended to have radiotherapy. It is usually recommended for people who have breast-conserving surgery (also called lumpectomy) and sometimes following a mastectomy. 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. Some people will also have radiotherapy to their armpit, neck or chest wall. 

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. Some people who meet certain criteria are able to have higher doses of radiation over a shorter period of time. This is called hypofractionated radiotherapy.  

If you live in a rural area you may need to go to a major regional centre or city to have radiotherapy. Some people 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.  While radiotherapy is painless, after a few weeks you may notice that your skin becomes dry, red and itchy, like sunburn. This may gradually become more noticeable but usually fades away completely between two and four weeks after treatment ends. 

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

Other side effects include: 

  • 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, chest, arm or axilla. If this persists after treatment is completed, it may be due to damage to the lymph system causing lymphoedema and requires assessment and treatment. 
  • Loss of appetite. 

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. Your breast care nurse can also help with dressings if you need them. 
  • Wear soft cotton tops to reduce irritation to your skin. 

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. 
  •  My Journey 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. 

BCNAs My Journey 

My Journey is where you go to get all your breast cancer information about your diagnosis in one place. Whether you have early breast cancer, DCIS or metastatic breast cancer, My Journey provides you with the latest information tailored to suit your situation. You can access this information through My Journey via an app or web browser at www.myjourney.org.au