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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 shrinks the cancer and so relieves pressure on the nerves to reduce pain. Secondary cancer can weaken bones, 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

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, abdomen or brain, you may feel sick. Sickness can be relieved by anti sickness medicines (antiemetics) which 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. The section about radiotherapy for breast cancer gives detailed information.

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
 

How radiotherapy may help

Radiotherapy works by killing off most of the cancer cells in the treated area. It shrinks the cancer to relieve pressure on the nerves and reduce pain.

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.

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. If you can't have the secondary cancer removed, you might still be offered radiotherapy to your brain.

Radiotherapy is very effective at treating cancer cells in one area or several distinct areas. It is different from cancer drugs because these treatments go into your bloodstream and they act on cancer cells throughout your body.

Radiotherapy is not painful. But some women find it uncomfortable to lie still while the treatment is done. It only takes a few minutes each time. If you think it might help, you can ask your doctor or radiographer if you can take a painkiller half an hour before your treatment.

 

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. There is information about strontium 89 in the main radiotherapy section. 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, 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.

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Updated: 30 October 2012