What is radiation therapy?
All cells, healthy or cancerous, grow and split to make new cells. However, cancerous cells grow and split more quickly than the normal cells around them. Radiation therapy involves the use of special equipment to deliver large doses of high energy particles or waves - x-rays, gamma rays, electrons, or protons, to cancerous cells; thus destroying or damaging them so they can no longer grow or spread. Radiation breaks a strand of the DNA molecule inside the cancer cell so that it cannot grow. It does affect some normal cells, but most recover fully from the effects of radiation. Whereas, chemotherapy exposes the entire body to cancer-fighting chemicals, radiation only affects the part of body that is being treated.
What are its side effects?
Breast cancer patients may experience one or more side effects during and after radiation treatment. However, some patients do not experience any side effects. These side effects usually subside within a few weeks after radiation therapy has ended. Early side effects from radiation to the breast and chest include fatigue, problems swallowing, coughing, shortness of breath, changes in skin, loss of appetite, hair loss in the area being treated, loss of white blood cells, breast swelling and tenderness, and a feeling of heaviness in the breast.
What happens to patients after radiation therapy?
After radiation therapy patients need to have follow-up care. They should visit their doctors regularly to check their progress and manage any problems that may arise; and continue some of the special care used during radiation treatment if necessary. For instance:
Patients may continue to experience skin irritation after radiation treatment. In these cases, they should continue to be gentle with skin in the treatment areas until it has healed.
Patients may need extra rest while their bodies are rebuilding healthy tissue.
Some patients will continue to feel the effects of fatigue for some amount of time after radiation treatment. Getting plenty of rest and limiting activities may help them recover more quickly.
Some patients continue to have pain after radiation therapy and will need to seek advice from their doctors.
The emotional toll of having breast cancer and radiation treatment may cause depression, stress, anger, grief, and other emotions in some patients. If these feelings become too overwhelming, patients should seek the help of trained mental health care clinicians.
Recovering from breast cancer and radiation therapy is a painful, uncomfortable, and emotionally draining process. However, radiation therapy, either given alone or in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments, can eradicate breast cancer and ensure long-term survival.