September 2013 Ask the Expert: Understanding Radiation Therapy
During the month of September, Living Beyond Breast Cancer Expert Jennifer Bellon, MD, answered your questions about what radiation therapy is, what to expect during treatment, what side effects may be associated with radiation therapy and how to manage them.
Remember: we cannot provide diagnoses, medical consultations or specific treatment recommendations. This service is designed for educational and informational purposes only. The information is general in nature. For specific healthcare questions or concerns, consult your healthcare provider because treatment varies with individual circumstances. The content is not intended in any way to substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.
Dr. Bellon: A well-balanced healthy diet seems prudent, although this has not been clearly linked to a lower rate of radiation-related side effects. Radiation-related skin side effects (redness and/or peeling) are more likely related to the clinical situation and body habitus, the way your body responds to sickness and disease. Your radiation nurse can recommend creams that hydrate the skin and keep the area more comfortable. If there is peeling, covering the area with a gauze pad or bandage can reduce rubbing. This typically heals quickly after a person has finished radiation therapy.
Dr. Bellon: Radiation can cause inflammation in the breast, which can result in swelling and pain. It is important to make sure that there is no underlying infection (which would typically require antibiotics), however. If your physician does not feel there is an infection, it is likely the swelling will go away on its own.
Dr. Bellon: Radiation can increase the risk of lymphedema if the lymph nodes under the arm or around the clavicle are included. The risk is higher if there was axillary surgery (particularly a full dissection, and less so after sentinel node surgery), and also seems to be higher in women who are overweight.
Dr. Bellon: This is highly dependent on the specific treatment being given, and can’t be generalized to all breast cancer patients. Sometimes the breast alone is treated, and sometimes the regional nodes are also included. In addition, the side effects of chest wall radiation after mastectomy differ from that of breast radiation.
Dr. Bellon: Unfortunately, there are no known curative treatments for radiation-related nerve injury. The medicine gabapentin can help if there is pain, but there is no known treatment to reverse the injury. Fibrosis can often be helped by massage, stretching (yoga or swimming) and physical therapy.
Dr. Bellon: It would be highly unlikely that a cough would have any relation to radiation given over 25 years ago. Long-term side effects can include thickening or fibrosis of the breast, red discoloration of the treated area (telangiectasias), a heightened risk of heart disease (if treated on the left side) and an extremely small risk of a cancer caused by radiation.