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What Is Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer Really Like? – Readers Share

Radiation therapy was not part of my breast cancer treatment plan, but I did witness it from a daughter’s perspective when my mother had it. I get emails asking me about radiation, so I wanted to address the topic here on the blog. When I haven’t experienced something breast cancer related myself, I often put out the call to you, my Dear Readers, usually via an email (sign up here). 

I was particularly interested in if anyone felt marginalized. The responses speak for themselves about that and so much more. Thank you to those who generously shared about their experiences for this post.

Excellent information about radiation therapy for breast cancer is readily available, all you have to do is a bit of Googling or, of course, ask your medical team. For starters, check out Radiation for Breast Cancer on American Cancer Society’s site. BreastCancer.org explains radiation therapy nicely too.

As always, please remember this blog is not a substitute for “real” medical advice.

Some women (and men) will receive radiation therapy as part of their breast cancer treatment plan and some will not. It all depends on your type of surgery, whether or not your cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body, tumor size, age and other factors.

Basically, radiation is treatment utilizing high-energy rays that destroy cancer cells. External beam radiation is used most commonly when treating breast cancer. As the name implies, the source of the radiation is external – a machine that delivers the rays.

The other kind is internal beam radiation (brachytherapy). With this type, a radioactive source is positioned in the body.

Traditionally, patients have received whole breast radiation for five days a week for five to six weeks. This was the schedule my mother was put on. With whole-breast radiation, the entire breast is treated. Newer methods deliver the radiation to the precise area where the cancer is located; this is called partial-breast radiation. In addition, some doctors are now offering accelerated irradiation. This means larger doses are given over a shorter time span. This makes the whole ordeal somewhat more manageable for some. Some patients also receive what’s referred to as a boost when treatment winds down.

Generally, radiation treatment begins after your lumpectomy or other surgical wound has healed.

What are the side effects of radiation therapy?

The most common side effects are skin issues that may (or may not) crop up such as reddening, swelling, itching, burning, soreness and sometimes peeling. And let’s not forget our old friend, fatigue.

I don’t know abut you, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing quite like hearing about the experiences of those who’ve been through it.

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So, now it’s time to hear from the experts, the dear readers who shared.

Roberta recently finished radiation and described what her experience was like:

To prepare for radiation, I had a CT scan and markings (tattoos) were made on my torso so they knew where the tumor (surgery) was and could calculate how to radiate that area plus a certain diameter around it. The markings are tiny, hardly noticeable, two on the middle of my torso and one on each side under the arms. I didn’t know this, but radiation beams pass through you. They have to be very careful not to harm other organs around the breast. Our radiation machines are in the basement of the cancer center because beams would keep going forever if not stopped by metal or concrete. Radiation was done every day for 5 or 16 days (you get weekends off). It’s pretty routine. You get there, change, wait to be called, lie down on a table – sorta like an MRI table. They line up your tattoos with their machines, and then they leave the room. The machine does its thing by moving around you or the table moves to whatever position is required. They are not noisy like MRI’s but do make whirring sounds as the machine moves around. I was on the table about 25 minutes each time. I think if you go for the 16 treatments they are shorter treatments, but you also have to do a holding your breath routine for whole breast radiation. I got to lie there very still and relax. If one could. I didn’t feel a thing during the treatments. The machine comes close to you at times but never touches you. They gave me some cream right after the first treatment. I was to use it on my breast 3 times a day even if I didn’t get a rash or sunburn effect. Near the last treatment, I noticed a slight sunburn, and I did get a pimple type rash but not severe. It has been 6 days since my last treatment, and the skin is almost back to normal, no hardness anywhere, which is sometimes a side effect. I was told radiation keeps working in your body for up to 3 weeks after treatment. It was weird to know the radiation stays with you for awhile. They said I might get tired after. I wasn’t sure this would happen as I felt pretty good. However, day 5 I noticed I was tired, very tired at times. I go to meetings and can hardly keep my eyes open. They say to rest when you feel this way and be sure to get exercise, sleep and eat healthy. I haven’t been too good with any of these.

If you have whole breast radiation, you cannot receive radiation there again should cancer recur or if a new cancer presents. With partial radiation you can have radiation again. Now I just have to do my follow-up exams, and then I think I’m done. I will have to work on better coping skills and not worrying about the future.

Throughout the radiation experience, I did not feel marginalized at all. The staff and doctors treated me with the utmost respect and made sure I understood every step and all my options.

Julia had this to say: 

1) Radiation is hard. You have to make yourself turn up day after day, even as you can feel the effects increasing. Psychologically, it’s tough and it’s lonely.
2) There’s not a lot of sympathy or compassion – several people said something like, “at least you aren’t having chemo…” sort of as if that negated my whole radiation experience. I had seven weeks of radiation and not one person offered help, except for my dad. Perhaps part of this is that radiation doesn’t really have a public image (for better or worse). It’s really a mystery to most people, and the side effects are less predictable than chemo and continue to arise months and years after treatment.
3) There are teeny, tiny upsides – I will never have to shave my left axilla again! Nor is sweat an issue on that side.
4) On feeling marginalized – Many women who’ve had MX or BMX do not realize that a LX and RT can impact a woman deeply. I suspect medical professionals don’t either. Maybe this comes from that tendency to make comparisons – “well, at least you got to keep your breast”. Many ROs don’t follow their patients for long and are notorious for brushing off most side effects. 
Teresa also responded candidly about feeling marginalized: 
Because of my fair skin and the location of my tumor, I’ve suffered severe burns. It’s now 3 months since I began radiation, and I think the worst is finally over. I’ve suffered so much, but am reluctant to reach out, as I always hear how lucky I am that I didn’t have chemo, and how “so and so” had it much worse. Also, people don’t understand the worst effects of radiation are after treatments are finished, and they seem a bit skeptical, because “so and so” had radiation and it was a breeze. When I hear these things, I can’t help but marginalize myself, too, thinking maybe I am a wimp. Thank you for helping me validate my cancer experience.
 
Rebeca, blogger behind The small c, shares candidly in a blog post, They said it was the easiest part:
I have to say that, emotionally, radiation was worse for me than chemo. I did not cry during my chemo infusions, but I did during radiation treatments…Because I was told that radiation would be the “easiest” part of my treatments, I did not ask anyone to come with me. Each daily appointment was no longer than 30-45 minutes anyway, including the wait. I thought I could handle it juuust fine.
Kathi, aka, The Accidental Amazon, shared the following in her blog post, Glowing in the Dark – Radiation: 
Receiving radiation treatment for cancer is a lot like being abducted by aliens & spirited off into outer space. You are led into this white room & instructed to lie down on a table topped with a metal grid with a meager strip of upholstery down the middle, all of which goes up & down on a hydrolic lift. At the head of this table is what looks like a massive floor lamp & is called a linear accelerator…
 
They leave the room because they are about to shoot poison death-rays at you. I mean, let’s not get cute here. They want to get the heck out of the way. So, they go into another room where they watch you on a video camera that shows you on their computer screen, so that they don’t get zapped while they’re zapping you & also so that you don’t secretly wiggle once they’ve left you all nice & lined up to get zapped.
 Angela offered the following tips, with a healthy dose of humor thrown in too:
1) Invest in multiple jugs of aloe with pumps; you will need them everywhere you go. Make up travel sizes too.
2) Get used to not wearing a bra. Invest in tank tops and camisoles to keep things a little tamed.
3) Invest in Miaderm, you can buy it online. Amazon is a good place to get it.
4) Clip coupons for Aquaphor, Eurcerin, etc. as it gets expensive buying that stuff.
5) Get as much sleep as you can; you may not get much when you feel like you are on fire and can’t roll over in bed and are itching all the time…And about that fatigue, they told me to “just go with it”. Uh huh. I slogged my way to treatment and then to my job.
6) Don’t wear your favorite things – unless you are fine with greasy favorite things.
7) Remember, this too shall pass. You’ll be surprised how fast you will heal and the burn will fade, but you’ll also be surprised how long you will see your “tan” – mine lasted a year. (Like a sash for Miss America. Yep. I sure felt like Miss America!)
8) Radiation may make you more susceptible to developing lymphedema, just one more gift to be thankful for…along with heart, lung and bone damage worries, if you have full-breast radiation. Gulp. But the latter are very rare, they said.
 
If you’re facing radiation, I hope reading this post gives you some idea about what to expect. Please remember, every person is different and your experience will be uniquely yours. As usual, learning from others who’ve been there can help just a bit.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

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If applicable, please share about YOUR radiation experience with a comment below. If you’re a blogger and have written a post about it, feel free to share the link as well. Thank you!

 

Have you had radiation therapy and if so, how did it go for you?

 

If yes, did you ever feel marginalized and hear things like, at least you didn’t need chemo or at least you got to keep your breast(s)?

 

If applicable, did you experience side effects from radiation therapy and/or are you now?

 

Do you have any tips to add for someone about to begin radiation?

 

 
 

This is one type of machine used to deliver external radiation – a lineac. Image via myradiotherapy.com

 #Radiation Therapy for #BreastCancer, What's It Really Like?

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Barbara Harris

Thursday 11th of February 2021

The inserts come in different shapes, and have some foam in them and ridges on the outside so it helps "massage" the breast. There are big binders full of types to choose from, that my P.T. haf, and she sent me to a person who ordered it for me.

Barbara Harris

Wednesday 10th of February 2021

No one has mentioned how hard radiation treatments are for those with back problems. I didn't realize that once they got everything tattooed and marked and measured, I would not be able to, say, put a pillow under my knees to relieve pressure on my back. My technicians were kind, and considering that two of them always had to help me up from lying flat, they were good-hearted and strong! I left my first several treatments and sat in the car and cried, thinking about six more weeks of pain. I learned to use a warm towel on my back afterwards to soothe the pain. On another matter -- I slathered faithfully (trying many things) and had a few tender sites towards the end, and continued slathering, but my worst skin breaks happened a couple weeks after treatments were done, which surprised me. They were painful but I felt lucky compared to some fellow-patients. My radiologist (closer to home) did not suggest physical therapy but when my oncologist (at my primary facility) found out, she immediately scheduled me for some, even months later. Through the P.T. I also got a bra insert to help prevent lymphedema -- I don't think anyone here has mentioned those inserts. All this was more than four years ago.

Nancy

Thursday 11th of February 2021

Barbara, Thank you for sharing about your radiation therapy experience. God bless those kind technicians. PT is certainly underutilized. I'm glad you were able to have that. I'm confused about the bra insert helping to prevent LE. Perhaps you can clarify that.

Linda

Wednesday 10th of February 2021

Just wanted to comment on a radiation storyline in a program we are watching called Borgen. It's on Netflix and is about a woman who becomes Prime Minister of Denmark. In season three she's no longer PM, is trying to form a new party, and finds out that she has 'precancerous cells" in a breast. They operate, remove the cells, and she's supposed to have 5 weeks of radiation. They show her having radiation and it all seems correct EXCEPT she went in to her doctor for tingling in her fingers and I suppose had a complete physical. Even the character, when she's told about these cells, says, "I came in because my fingers were bothering me" and the doctor says that other symptoms can lead to a cancer diagnosis. I'm wondering: has anyone else gone to the doctor for something and ended up with a BC diagnosis?

Nancy

Thursday 11th of February 2021

Linda, Interesting and annoying at times how we can't get away from cancer even when watching TV. Before my diagnosis, I initially went to the doctor thinking I was having a heart attack. In fact, chapter one of my book is titled, "I think I'm having a heart attack!". Even though my mother had recently died from mbc, I never suspected breast cancer. I had always heard that there's not pain involved. Wrong. So in answer to your question, YES.

Robbie Kepic

Tuesday 5th of November 2019

My experience with radiation has been wonderful, especially compared to some of the things I read here. 21 treatments, 2 caring technologists (1 male, 1 female) and my radiation oncologist and nurse whom I absolutely love. The longest treatment was the first one and it took 20 minutes, including wait time. More frequently it was 7 minutes, they were usually waiting on me and I tried to get there 5 minutes early! My doc encouraged me to call any time, not to wait til Monday morning. No problems with skin, but I was diligent with aloe from my plant and coconut oil per my doc’s recommendation. I wish you all could have had the wonderful experience I did.

Robbie Kepic

Tuesday 5th of November 2019

I probably should have said that I am an engineer and have worked in the nuclear power industry for years so I know what radiation is and what it can do. No learning curve here.

Tasha

Thursday 12th of July 2018

It's been nearly two years since I finished radiation. Before I started, my breast oncologist told me to moisturize as often as I could, only avoiding the fours hours before treatment time. I can't imagine how my skin would have reacted if I hadn't taken her advice. By the third week, I was in pain most of the time. By the final session, my skin was blistered and weepy. Gross and painful. Even after all of this time, I still have residual aches and itching. I moisturize every day. Nothing like trying to scratch an itch on a breast you can't feel!

I documented every week of my radiation treatment on my blog. I even recorded a treatment and annotated it. I found that many people have this very vague idea of radiation treatment. I wanted to be able to show people the procedure and take the mystery out of it. Here is the link to my blog page of the video. https://anothercancerandme.com/2016/10/17/a-video-of-one-of-my-radiation-treatments/

Nancy

Friday 13th of July 2018

Tash, Nothing like trying to scratch an itch on a breast you can't feel - boy I relate to that! Good for you for documenting your radiation treatment. You're right, most people only have a vague idea of what radiation is about, so thank you for sharing the link and for your comment.

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