Radiation therapy is a medical procedure involving the use of x-rays at high energy to kill cancer cells and shrink the tumor. Unlike chemotherapy, which is systematic, radiotherapy delivers a precised dose of radiation to the volume of the tumor, thus, sparing the maximum surrounding healthy tissue possible.
Choosing the exact dose (amount of energy that radiation will deposit in the tissues) of radiotherapy is very important. According to many recent studies, under dosing beyond 5% is less effective and increases the risk of recurrence. Therefore, your oncologist will recommend the dose the most capable of fighting the cancer.
Usually you are administered the therapy 4 or 5 days per week for a period of 5 to 6 weeks consecutively. A session of radiation can last 20 minutes or less. The therapy is painless (does not cause pain), but cause side effects, which may include:
- discoloration of the breast
- red lips
- vomiting and nausea
A healthy and well-balanced diet and medicines can be used to remedy those effects.
During and after the therapies (chemotherapy and radiotherapy), medical surveillance is very important. Some complications especially heart, lung and digestive problems; arm swelling may occur several years after the radiotherapy and chemotherapy. However, with invention of sophisticated and computerized machines, radiotherapy has become less dangerous, and causes less or no side effects. If your doctor thinks it will be helpful, he will recommend an internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) along with the external radiation therapy
Also called internal radiotherapy, sealed source radiotherapy or curietherapy, brachytherapy is a type of radiotherapy consists of introducing the radioactive sources inside the breast next or directly in the tumor. Brachytherapy is based on the same principle as radiotherapy; the difference is that radioactive sources are introduced directly into the cancer, which makes this method less destructive to healthy surrounding cells of the treated area. In addition, brachytherapy can only be performed to treat non-metastatic cancers. Two main types of brachytherapy can be used in the treatment of breast cancer:
Interstitial: during an interstitial brachytherapy, your oncologist will place the radioactive source directly into your breast. The radioactive material can be in the form of plastic tubes, hollow metal needles, seeds or wires. In general, these materials are placed under the skin of your breast after receiving local, epidural or general anesthesia.
Endocavitary: this form of radiotherapy consists of placing the radioactive source in natural cavities of the breast affected by the cancer. Endocavitary irradiation therapy allows your doctor to irradiate the tumor while protecting surrounding organs.
Note: Endocavitary irradiation therapy is in experimental phase; it is not yet approved by the FDA.