Radiation therapy for breast cancer

Radiation therapy is often combined with other breast cancer treatments including surgery, chemotherapy and/or hormone therapy to reduce the risk that your breast cancer will return. Radiation oncologists at Duke work closely with your surgeon, medical oncologists, and other members of your breast cancer team to coordinate your care. We use the latest techniques to accurately target your radiation therapy to your cancer and minimize radiation exposure to your healthy tissue.

Will I need radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. Most people who have a lumpectomy will undergo radiation therapy four to six weeks following surgery. Radiation therapy may also be recommended after mastectomy to treat the chest wall and lymph nodes near the chest wall. If radiation therapy is recommended following mastectomy, our radiation oncologists work very closely with your breast surgeon and plastic surgeon to coordinate any plans for breast reconstruction.

Radiation therapy may also be recommended if you have metastatic breast cancer (cancer that has spread from the breast to other organs in the body), most commonly to relieve pain or other symptoms.

How safe is radiation therapy for breast cancer?

Minimizing radiation exposure to your healthy tissues -- especially your heart and lungs -- is one of our top priorities. To do so, we use numerous technologic innovations and safety checks to ensure your treatment is given accurately.

  • The first step is a planning session which serves two purposes. We use a CT scan to identify the tissue that will receive radiation, as well as the healthy tissue to be protected. This session also ensures you are comfortable during your radiation treatments.
  • The next step is a practice session on the linear accelerator, the machine that delivers the radiation treatment. The machine goes through the motions of treatment and takes pictures to make sure your body is correctly positioned. Once your radiation treatment begins, frequent images ensure you stay properly aligned.
  • The position of your body during your treatment helps protect the heart and lungs from radiation exposure. With prone positioning, women, often with larger breasts, lie on their stomachs for treatment. Women with left-sided breast cancers are often asked to inhale deeply and hold their breath for approximately 20 seconds in order to move the heart away from the radiation field. This technique is called deep inspiration breath hold.

Your radiation therapy for breast cancer at Duke

Your radiation treatments will be overseen by board-certified radiation oncologists who specialize in breast cancer. Your radiation oncologist oversees a team of care givers, including the radiation therapists who administer your treatments.

Our radiation specialists study new ways to use radiation therapy for breast cancer with clinical trials in which you may be able to participate. For example, we currently are studying the effects of administering a single dose of radiation before surgery. Another clinical trial is testing how the need for radiation may be impacted by chemotherapy response. Ask your radiation oncologist if you are eligible to participate in a clinical trial.

Radiation therapy for breast cancer at Duke is delivered using a machine called a linear accelerator. As it rotates around your body, it delivers a targeted beam of high-energy X-rays to the breast tissue affected by cancer.

  • Most commonly treatment is given five days per week over a three- to six-week period.
  • Radiation treatments are customized to protect healthy tissue.

Your radiation oncologist will explain treatment options and recommend the approach that is right for you.

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