Breast Cancer in women

Radiotherapy for breast cancer

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% 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 3-5weeks 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.

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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.

For some women radiotherapy was difficult. A few compared their experiences of radiotherapy with chemotherapy and explained why radiotherapy caused them greater anxiety.

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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.  

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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.

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.

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.

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 men with breast cancer'.

* BMJ 2008 337a421

Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated May 2015.

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