Side Effects of Radiation for Breast Cancer

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Breast cancer patients may undergo radiation therapy after a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Radiation therapy helps eliminate cancer cells that remain in the breast after the initial lump is removed. According to the American Cancer Society, radiation damages the DNA of the cancer cells so they can't multiply. While radiation therapy is physically easier to handle than chemotherapy or other breast cancer treatments, a woman may experience some side effects during and after receiving radiation.

Radiation Therapy

  • Radiation therapy is administered with an external machine. A radiation team marks target areas with ink or temporary tattoos and aims the beam to penetrate those internal areas, similar to an X-ray, according to the American Cancer Society. These marks will stay on your body for the duration of the radiation treatment period. Each appointment takes about 30 minutes, but treatment is usually given five days a week for up to seven weeks, according to BreastCancer.org.

Skin

  • Radiation therapy has some side effects on the skin, including discoloration or pinkness, irritation, especially in the armpit area and the fold of the breast, extreme dryness in the radiated areas, soreness, peeling and blisters.

    After therapy is complete, affected skin should start to grow back. This can take a while and the skin can continue to be irritated and sore. According to the American Cancer Society, it usually takes six to 12 months for the skin to go back to normal after receiving radiation therapy.

Chest Pain

  • A combination of surgery and radiation therapy can cause the nerves in the breast area to swell and become irritated, according to BreastCancer.org. This can result in brief shooting chest pain. See your doctor if you are experiencing chest pain. It can usually be treated with hot and cold packs or medication.

Fatigue

  • Fatigue is a common side effect during or after radiation treatment. It can be an all-the-time feeling, or a sudden overwhelming feeling. Nine out of 10 women experience fatigue from breast cancer treatment, according to BreastCancer.org.

Breathing

  • Radiation therapy can contribute to breathing problems. Mild problems are shortness of breath and a dry cough, BreastCancer.org says. More severe symptoms relate to a pulmonary embolism (when a blood clot travels to the lung), such as swelling, redness, discomfort and a warm feeling in the legs. Talk to your doctor if you have breathing problems, especially if you have symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, which requires immediate medical treatment.

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