Breast Cancer Radiation Therapy

patient receiving radiaton therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays aimed at the tumor site to kill cancer cells. This treatment is used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancerous cells in the breast, chest wall or underarm area.

Physicians who administer radiation therapy are called radiation oncologists. At your initial consultation, the radiation oncologist will review information about your diagnosis, including the expected outcome, potential side effects and reasonable alternatives to radiation therapy, if there are any.

Next, he or she does what is called a simulation to plan your treatment. This includes having a CT scan, measuring and marking the location to be treated, and taking photos. Care is taken to ensure that the radiation is delivered precisely to the tumor, thus sparing your normal surrounding tissue.

Usually, radiation therapy is delivered in a series of treatments over six to seven weeks, on a Monday through Friday schedule. The appointments usually last 15 to 20 minutes, although the radiation treatment is only one to two minutes in length.

During your treatment you are being carefully monitored from outside the room. Occasionally x-ray films are taken during the procedure to make sure you are positioned accurately.

You will not feel any pain or discomfort during your treatment. After treatment, side effects may include swelling and heaviness in the breast, sunburn-like changes in the treated area and possibly fatigue. Usually, these changes of the breast tissue and skin go away in six to 12 months. In some women, the breast becomes smaller and firmer after radiation therapy.

Intraoperative Radiation Therapy (IORT)

Now a much faster, more localized method of radiation treatment is available for patients following lumpectomy for breast cancer. Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is a one-time treatment administered into the tumor bed at the time of breast surgery. With IORT, a radiation oncologist and physicist work with the breast surgeon to deliver an effective dose of radiation in a single session. Immediately after removal of the tumor, a highly localized radiation dose is directly delivered to the tumor site. Once the portable therapy unit is set up for treatment, IORT takes only minutes to administer for most patients. Upon completion of the radiation treatment, the delivery catheter is removed and the incision is closed to complete the procedure.

Radiation Therapy Technology at Virginia Mason

At Virginia Mason, we continue to incorporate new technologies into the care of our breast cancer patients. The latest addition to our technology is Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT).

With IMRT, treatment planning is accomplished with a quick CT scan of the breast region. A three-dimensional plan is then constructed by the radiation oncologist and dosimetrist that precisely contours the radiation dose to treat the breast and avoid normal structures such as the lung and heart.

This technology represents an improvement over conventional radiation therapy in that the planning and delivery of treatment is more rapid, and the dose distribution is more uniform, resulting in less skin and soft tissue reactions.

We are excited to be able to offer this new technology to all of our breast cancer patients and anticipate additional innovations in the future, such as partial breast radiation in which treatment is completed within five days. Selected patients with small breast tumors that have been removed may be eligible for this treatment.