Whole Breast Radiation
The standard radiation treatment for breast cancer is whole breast radiation, given daily by external beam. It lasts for 5 to 7 weeks. Each treatment takes about 15 minutes but could be longer depending on your situation.
Treatment to the entire breast lasts for about the first 5 weeks. After that, the remaining weeks have a boost, or extra treatment, to the tumor area.
Accelerated external beam radiation, a newer treatment, gives whole breast radiation over 3 to 4 weeks. If time or travel is a concern for you, ask your radiation oncologist if you can get accelerated external beam radiation.
External beam radiation is whole-breast radiation and is the most common type of radiation therapy used to treat breast cancer. From outside the body, a large machine called a linear accelerator directs high-energy x-rays into the area affected by the cancer.
You will receive treatments in an outpatient radiation center, as many as 5 days a week for 5 to 7 weeks. You may also receive a slightly higher dose of radiation over a shorter period, usually once a day over 3 to 4 weeks. This is called hypofractionated radiation.
How It’s PerformedBecause these treatments must be precise, a CT scan may be used to plan them. A doctor with special training in treating cancer with radiation, called a radiation oncologist, marks your body with reference points, the spots to be radiated. This can be done by placing freckle–sized tattoos on your skin or with a non-permanent marker, if you can’t get a tattoo.
Receiving external breast radiation is much like getting an x-ray. In general:
- The radiation therapist leads you to a treatment room and helps you onto a flat table
- You lie on the table while your radiation therapist lines up your tattoos with the linear accelerator
- Your body is positioned to ensure the treatment is given exactly as planned
- The radiation therapist then leaves the room
Each treatment takes about 15 minutes. You must stay still and as relaxed as possible during this time. The machine will not touch you, and the procedure itself is painless. You may hear noise from the machine or see the warning light—this is normal. The therapist may come into the room several times to reposition the machine and your body. You may be asked to hold your breath for brief periods. This is called deep inspiration breath hold, or DIBH. It helps move the heart away from the field of radiation.
The room has a camera so that the radiation therapist can see you. It also has an intercom, so you can tell the therapist right away if you have a problem.
You will not be radioactive, and you will not expose others to radiation.
The radiation therapist will take an x-ray called a port film at different times during treatment. The port films help ensure you are being positioned correctly during your treatments.
Who Gets ItExternal beam radiation can be used for whole breast radiation after surgery for most:
- Ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS (non-invasive breast cancer)
- Early-stage breast cancer
- Locally advanced breast cancer
- Inflammatory breast cancer
If you are living with metastatic breast cancer, external beam radiation can be used to shrink tumors, to improve your quality of life and to decrease pain. It is unlikely that radiation will get rid of the cancer completely, but it is often used to
- Manage pain from tumors to the bone
- Treat or prevent symptoms secondary to breast cancer to the brain or lungs
- Decrease pain and prevent injury to the nerves by treating tumors to the spine that push on the spinal cord