Radiotherapy is given, where appropriate, to reduce the risk of a recurrence of breast cancer. It is a standard part of treatment after breast-conserving surgery (it reduces recurrence rates from 26% down to 7%*) and may be advised for some women after mastectomy treatment.
Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high energy X-rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. Treatment is normally given daily (from Monday to Friday) for 3–5 weeks as an out-patient but can also be given on alternate weekdays for 5 weeks. Radiotherapy usually starts about 4–6 weeks after surgery unless chemotherapy is required. Radiotherapy is usually given after chemotherapy has finished. Patients go to radiotherapy planning sessions before treatment to make sure the radiotherapy rays are aimed precisely at the cancer and cause the least possible harm to the surrounding healthy tissues.
Here women we interviewed talk about their experiences of radiotherapy and its side effects.
Women discussed the reasons why they needed radiotherapy and what it involved. A few mentioned delays in receiving treatment as a result of broken equipment.
Explains the reasons she was given radiotherapy.
Although some women were anxious before having radiotherapy, most found it painless and several continued working through it. Others pointed out that, while painless, radiotherapy was an impersonal or isolating experience.
Describes her experience of having radiotherapy.
Explains that she was able to work throughout her treatment.
Discusses her feelings of isolation while having radiotherapy.
For some women radiotherapy was difficult. A few compared their experiences of radiotherapy with chemotherapy and explained why radiotherapy caused them greater anxiety.
Discusses her feelings while attending for radiotherapy.
One woman took part in a clinical trial in which radiotherapy was given two days a week followed by a break, rather than daily for several weeks. Another had intra-operative radiotherapy, which involves having radiotherapy during breast surgery. One woman, who was awaiting treatment, explained that she did not know much about radiotherapy or what to expect.
Describes her experience of intra-operative radiotherapy.
Some women described their experiences with hospital staff as friendly and supportive, though a few felt that staff had been abrupt or cool. Talking with other patients was, for some women, encouraging. One woman preferred not to talk with other patients in the waiting room because she wanted to deal with her own feelings.
Explains that she did not talk with other patients in the waiting room because she was dealing…
Some women had no side effects from radiotherapy. Many, though, did, either during or after treatments. These included tiredness and skin problems such as “weepiness”, soreness, redness or burning, for which most women used creams.
Explains feeling unexpectedly tired as a result of having radiotherapy.
Describes how she dealt with breast soreness after radiotherapy and the creams she used.
A few women said they felt depressed during or after radiotherapy. Individual participants experienced temporary side effects such as frozen shoulder, aches in the bones, and loss of appetite. One woman had a pulmonary embolus (a blood clot in her lung) during radiotherapy.
Describes her feelings of depression after having radiotherapy.
Describes some side effects of radiotherapy but has warm memories of the atmosphere in the…
Some women said having someone with them at appointments would have been helpful. Others advised taking plenty of rest during and after treatments, and accepting help if needed.
Healthtalk has a whole site on breast cancer in men, for more information see Radiotherapy for breast cancer in men.
*BMJ 2008 337a421