The Who, What, Where, When and Sometimes, Why.

Radiation Therapy

Standard radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses targeted, high-energy X-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells.

The goal of radiation therapy is to kill any cancer that might be left in or around the breast or nearby lymph nodes after surgery.

Radiation therapy is an option for many women who have:

Radiation therapy is standard treatment for most women who have:

Learn about emerging areas in radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy and DCIS

Radiation therapy is often given to women who are treated with lumpectomy (also called breast conserving surgery) for DCIS.

In rare cases, radiation therapy is given to women treated with mastectomy for DCIS.

Learn more about treatment for DCIS.

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For a summary of research studies on lumpectomy plus radiation therapy in the treatment of DCIS, visit the Breast Cancer Research Studies section.

Radiation therapy and invasive breast cancer

After lumpectomy

Radiation therapy is usually recommended after lumpectomy.

Radiation therapy can lower the risk of [3]:

After mastectomy

Many women who have a mastectomy don’t benefit from radiation therapy.

However, in some cases, radiation therapy is used after mastectomy to treat the chest wall and lymph nodes. These can include the lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary nodes), around the collarbone or near the breastbone (internal mammary nodes).

 

Radiation therapy is carefully planned and precisely given. 

Your treatment is tailored to your breast cancer and your body.

Learn about planning and treatment sessions for radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy has some short-term side effects (such as skin tenderness) and for some women, long-term side effects (such as lymphedema).

Learn more about possible side effects of radiation therapy.

Not everyone can have radiation therapy. Being pregnant, having certain health conditions or having some inherited gene mutations can make radiation therapy harmful.

  • Pregnancy. Radiation can harm a fetus. Depending on the timing of the pregnancy and the breast cancer diagnosis, a woman may be able to have a lumpectomy and wait to have radiation therapy until after delivery.
  • Scleroderma. Radiation therapy can cause harm to normal tissue during and after treatment in people who have scleroderma. (In some women at higher risk of breast cancer recurrence, radiation therapy may still be used.)
  • Some inherited gene mutations. Radiation therapy can cause harm to normal tissue during and after treatment in people who have certain inherited gene mutations. (In some women at higher risk of breast cancer recurrence, radiation therapy may still be used.)
  • Past radiation therapy to the same breast or to the same side of the chest. In general, radiation therapy to the breast can only be given once. (In rare cases, radiation therapy to the same breast or overlapping parts of the body can be considered after talking with your radiation oncologist.)

Women who have breast implants (saline or silicone) can usually have radiation therapy. However, implants can make radiation therapy planning more complex.

Side effects of radiation therapy on breast implants

Radiation therapy can cause scarring and hardening of the implant, leading to a poor cosmetic look and/or chronic pain in the breast area. In these cases, the implant may need to be removed.

Radiation therapy and breast reconstruction with implants

If your treatment plan includes mastectomy, radiation therapy and breast reconstruction, discuss possible risks with your plastic surgeon and radiation oncologist.

Learn more about breast reconstruction.

New radiation therapy methods are under study in clinical trials.

Learn about emerging areas in radiation therapy

  • Why do you recommend radiation therapy for me?
  • Is there a clinical trial I can join?
  • How will radiation therapy affect my risk of a local breast cancer recurrence, metastasis or a new breast cancer? Please explain the differences.
  • How long will each treatment session take? How many sessions will I have?
  • Can I have accelerated (shortened course) whole breast radiation therapy?
  • Can I come to treatment sessions alone, or should a friend or family member come with me?
  • What clothes should I wear to the treatment sessions?
  • Can I wear deodorant to the treatment sessions?
  • What lotion, soaps or other skincare products should I use or avoid during the course of treatment?
  • Can I wear a bra during the course of treatment?
  • What side effects should I expect? How long might they last? What symptoms need medical care?
  • What problems should I report to you right away?
  • What are the long-term risks of radiation therapy?
  • Who do I contact if I have problems or questions about my treatment? What about on weekends or holidays?
  • What precautions should I take during treatment?
  • Can I continue normal activities? Are there activities I should avoid?
  • Where can I find a support group for breast cancer survivors (or cancer survivors in general)?
  • Should I continue to see my regular physician or gynecologist during my treatment?
  • How often will I have check-ups and follow-up tests after treatment ends? Will a follow-up care plan be prepared for me?
  • Which health care provider is in charge of my follow-up care?
  • Who can talk with me about the cost of my treatment (including the expenses covered by my insurance and the costs I should expect to pay out-of-pocket)?

Learn more about talking with your health care provider.

It may be helpful to download and print Susan G. Komen®‘s Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Radiation Therapy and Side Effects resource and take it with you to your next doctor appointment. There’s plenty of space to write down the answers to these questions, which you can refer to later.

There are other Questions to Ask Your Doctor resources on many different breast cancer topics you may wish to download. They are a nice tool for people recently diagnosed with breast cancer, who may be too overwhelmed to know where to begin to gather information.

 

Treatment guidelines

Although the exact treatment for breast cancer varies from person to person, guidelines help ensure high-quality care. These guidelines are based on the latest research and agreement among experts.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) are respected organizations that regularly review and update their guidelines.

In addition, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has treatment overviews.

Talk with your health care providers about which treatment guidelines they use.

Importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan

Breast cancer treatment is most effective when all parts of the treatment plan are followed as prescribed.

It’s important to follow the treatment plan prescribed by your health care provider in terms of:

  • Timing
  • Dose
  • Frequency

Completing radiation therapy

Radiation therapy after lumpectomy lowers the risk of breast cancer recurrence and may increase the chances of survival [3]. It’s usually recommended after lumpectomy.

Radiation therapy for early breast cancer typically involves treatment once a day, 5 days a week, for 3-6 weeks.

Getting to and from the treatment center every day for weeks can be hard, especially if you live far away or, if children or other family members rely on you for care.

If you need a ride to and from treatment or help with child care or elder care, there may be resources available. Family and friends often want to help, but don’t know how. These are great ways for them to get involved.

Sometimes, there are programs that help with local or long-distance transportation and lodging (if you need a place to stay overnight during treatment).

There are also programs that help with child care and elder care costs.

It’s OK to ask for help. It’s important to complete your radiation therapy without gaps or delays.

Learn more about the importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan.

You are not alone

If you’re facing radiation therapy, remember, many people have been where you are today. They had the same fears. They’ve gone through breast cancer treatment, recovered and are living their lives.

Sharing experiences and advice with others going through radiation therapy or those who have finished treatment may be helpful.

We have a list of resources for finding local and online support groups. Your health care team may also be able to help you find a local support group.

Learn more about social support and support groups.

SUSAN G. KOMEN® SUPPORT RESOURCES 

  • If you or a loved one needs more information about breast health or breast cancer, call the Komen Breast Care Helpline at 1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877-465-6636). All calls are answered by a trained specialist or oncology social worker in English and Spanish, Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. ET. You can also email the helpline at helpline@komen.org.
  • We offer an online support community through our closed Facebook Group – Komen Breast Cancer group. The Facebook group provides a place where those with a connection to breast cancer can discuss each other’s experiences and build strong relationships to provide support to each other. Visit Facebook and search for “Komen Breast Cancer group” to request to join the closed group.
  • Komen Affiliates offer breast health education and some fund breast cancer programs through local community organizations. Your local Affiliate may also help you find breast cancer resources in your area. Find your local Affiliate.
  • Our fact sheets, booklets and other education materials offer additional information.