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Radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer

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This page tells you about radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells. Radiotherapy is helpful for treating women with secondary breast cancer in the bones, the skin, the lymph nodes in the armpit, or parts of the brain.

How radiotherapy may help

Radiotherapy can shrink a secondary cancer to relieve pressure on the nerves and reduce pain. Secondary cancer in the bones can weaken them, because the growing cancer cells destroy the bone. After radiotherapy, the bone begins to replace the lost tissue and so becomes stronger again and less likely to fracture. 

Strontium radiotherapy

This is radiotherapy that you have as an injection. It can be useful if your breast cancer has spread widely through your bones. You have this type of treatment to control bone pain. It may also slow down the development of the cancer in your bones.

Side effects of radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer

Secondary breast cancer usually only needs a short course of radiotherapy and so most women have few side effects. Radiotherapy may damage some normal cells around the cancer. The treatment may make you feel tired for a while.

If you have treatment to your brain, you may have some hair loss. 

If you are having radiotherapy to the stomach, tummy (abdomen) or brain, you may feel sick. Sickness can be relieved by anti sickness medicines (antiemetics) that your doctor or nurse can prescribe.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Secondary breast cancer section.

 

 

When radiotherapy is used

Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells. The rays only treat the area of the body they are aimed at. Radiotherapy can be given to different areas of the body at the same time. It tries to do as little harm as possible to normal cells. 

Radiotherapy is helpful for treating women with secondary breast cancer in

  • One or more areas of bone
  • The skin
  • The lymph nodes in the armpit
  • Parts of the brain

Our page about radiotherapy for breast cancer gives detailed information about how you have radiotherapy.

 

How radiotherapy may help

Radiotherapy works very well at treating cancer cells in one area of the body or several distinct areas. It is different from cancer drugs because those treatments go into your bloodstream and act on cancer cells throughout your body.

Radiotherapy works by killing off most of the cancer cells in the treated area. A radiotherapy machine aims carefully targeted beams of radiation at the cancer. This can shrink the cancer and reduce symptoms it is causing.

Radiotherapy is not painful. You can't feel it. The treatment only takes a few minutes each time. But some women find it uncomfortable to lie still while the treatment is done. The radiographer will help to get you into a comfortable position.

A photo of a linear accelerator, which gives radiotherapy

External radiotherapy to the skin

If cancer cells in the skin are causing a sore area that bleeds and won't heal, radiotherapy can help the skin to heal and reduce bleeding.

External radiotherapy to the lymph glands

If cancer cells in the lymph glands in the armpit are causing swelling and discomfort, radiotherapy to the lymph glands can shrink them and help you feel more comfortable.

External radiotherapy to the bone

Secondary cancer can weaken bones, because the growing cancer cells destroy the bone. A bone affected by cancer is more likely to break. This is called a pathological fracture. If you have secondary cancer that is weakening your bones, your doctors may suggest surgery before you have radiotherapy. After radiotherapy, the bone begins to replace the lost tissue and becomes stronger again, so is less likely to fracture.

External radiotherapy to the brain

If breast cancer has spread to your brain in one, or a small number, of places, it may be possible to remove the secondary cancer surgically. After that you might have radiotherapy to the whole of your brain or stereotactic radiotherapy that is focussed on the area of the cancer cells. If you can't have the secondary cancer removed, you might still be offered radiotherapy to your brain. 

We have detailed information about radiotherapy to the brain, including stereotactic radiotherapy to the brain.

 

Strontium radiotherapy for cancer in the bones

If your breast cancer has spread into several places in your bones you may have strontium 89 treatment. We have a page about strontium 89 treatment. It is radiotherapy that you have as an injection. It circulates throughout your body in the bloodstream and the cancer cells in the bone take it up. It destroys some of the cancer cells. You may have this type of treatment to control pain. 

Strontium 89 treatment may also slow down the development of the cancer in your bones. The radiation from the injection only lasts a few days in your body. It is such a small amount that it is not dangerous to anyone else. But it can work very well for controlling bone pain.

 

Side effects of radiotherapy

Secondary breast cancer usually only needs a short course of radiotherapy and so most women have few side effects. The treatment may cause damage to some normal cells around the cancer. The body then repairs this damage and you may feel tired if you are having a few treatments.

Radiotherapy to the stomach, tummy (abdomen) or brain may make you feel sick. Any sickness can be relieved by anti sickness drugs (anti emetics) which your doctor or nurse can prescribe. You may find that it helps to take an anti sickness tablet an hour before your treatment.

If you have radiotherapy treatment to your brain, you may have some hair loss. Your hair usually starts to grow back a few months after the treatment is over. But this growth is sometimes patchy, particularly at first.

 

Finding more information

If you have any questions about radiotherapy, you can ask your specialist or the staff in the radiotherapy department. The questions for your doctor page has some questions you may want to ask. There is also more information in the main radiotherapy section.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our breast cancer organisations page gives details of other people who can provide information about breast cancer and its treatment. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. 

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 8 August 2014