Going Through Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy can harm normal tissue, so it’s carefully planned and precisely delivered. This helps make sure the radiation kills as many cancer cells as it can while doing as little harm as possible to other parts of your body.
Radiation therapy is planned specifically for your breast cancer, the shape of your body and your internal anatomy. This is why sessions can’t be split between different treatment centers.
Your treatment plan is based on:
- The tumor size, type and location
- The number of lymph nodes with cancer
- The type of breast surgery (and lymph node surgery) you had
- The shape of your breast or chest wall, and the shape and location of nearby organs (such as your heart and lungs)
Your radiation oncologist oversees the radiation planning session (also called a simulation).
You will lie on a special table while your radiation oncologist decides the proper dose of radiation and where to give the radiation. Your radiation oncologist will use a CT scan or an MRI to guide the radiation planning. This allows the radiation oncologist and their team to tailor the radiation fields to your body shape and anatomy, as well as to the details of the tumor. They will determine the correct position for your body to be in when you get radiation therapy.
During the planning session, your radiation oncologist may put small marks (about the size of a pinhead) on your skin. These marks make sure you are correctly positioned for each treatment. Some centers use very small permanent tattoos. Other centers use temporary marks, so it’s important not to wash these marks off until you finish all your radiation therapy. Still other centers have moved away from putting any visible marks on the skin.
You may be asked to hold your breath for a few seconds at certain times during the planning session. This is one way to minimize radiation exposure to the heart.
Radiation therapy sessions
Your radiation oncologist leads a team of technicians and nurses. The team will work with you at each radiation therapy session.
What should I expect?
During each session, you will lie on a special table.
You may be asked to hold your breath while the radiation is given. This is one way to minimize radiation exposure to the heart.
Each session lasts about 10 to 20 minutes. Most of this time is spent positioning your body to make sure the treatment is given exactly as planned.
You will not be radioactive
You will not be radioactive when you leave the radiation treatment center after any standard radiation therapy session. You will not pose any radiation risk to your family or your pets.
How often will I go for treatment?
Your schedule of radiation sessions is designed to treat your breast cancer. So, schedules vary from person to person.
Treatment is most often given once a day, 5 days a week, for 1-6 weeks.
After a lumpectomy, many women get hypofractionated whole-breast radiation therapy which uses a slightly higher dose of radiation per session. This reduces the number of treatment sessions and shortens the overall course to 5 days a week, for 1-4 weeks.
Hypofractionated radiation therapy is under study for use after a mastectomy (learn more).
Things to remember while going through radiation therapy
Things to remember
Adapted from National Cancer Institute materials .
Transportation, lodging, child care and elder care assistance
Getting to and from the treatment center every day for weeks can be hard, especially if you live far away or, if others rely on you for care.
There may be resources available if you need a ride to and from treatment or help with child or elder care. 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 to help you with child and elder care costs.
Komen Financial Assistance Program
Susan G. Komen® created the Komen Financial Assistance Program to help those struggling with the costs of breast cancer treatment by providing financial assistance to eligible individuals.
Funding is available for eligible individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment at any stage or living with metastatic breast cancer (stage 4).
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