Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter

About breast cancer radiotherapy

Men and women discussing breast cancer

This page tells you about radiotherapy for breast cancer. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

About breast cancer radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is cancer treatment using radiation. It is a common treatment for breast cancer. After breast surgery, radiotherapy can lower the risk of the cancer coming back in the breast.

How and where you have radiotherapy

You have your treatment in the hospital radiotherapy department. You may have treatment once a day, from Monday to Friday, for 3 weeks. Or you may have treatment on alternate weekdays for 5 weeks. You usually have a break from treatment at the weekend. You travel to the hospital each time you have treatment.

At your first visit you lie under a specialised CT scanning machine. The doctors use the machine to plan your treatment. The radiographers will make one or more small tattoo marks on your skin. They use these to line up the radiotherapy machine accurately each time. They may also draw marks on your body with a felt tip pen.

Each treatment only takes a few minutes. The treatment doesn't hurt, and it does not make you radioactive.

More rarely radioactive tubes are put into the area of the breast where the cancer was removed. Doctors call this internal radiotherapy or brachytherapy.

 

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

 

 

What radiotherapy is

Radiotherapy is cancer treatment using radiation to destroy cancer cells. It is a common treatment for breast cancer after surgery. Studies have shown that for women with early breast cancer the cure rate is the same whether they have only the cancer removed (breast conserving surgery) followed by radiotherapy or have the whole breast removed (a mastectomy). 

Radiotherapy after breast conserving surgery

A review in 2011 looked at research trials into radiotherapy after breast conserving surgery. It showed that radiotherapy treatment lowers the risk of the cancer coming back either in the remaining breast tissue or in the nearby lymph nodes. It also helps some women live longer. You can read a brief summary of the review. It is written for researchers and specialists so is not in plain English.

Usually after breast conserving surgery (lumpectomy or wide local excision) women have radiotherapy to the whole of the remaining breast tissue. Doctors call this whole breast radiotherapy. But some trials are looking at giving radiotherapy just to the area where the breast cancer was removed using intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT). Other trials are looking at giving different doses of radiotherapy to particular areas of the breast. There is information about these trials on our breast cancer treatment research page.

Radiotherapy after mastectomy

Some women who have a mastectomy may need radiotherapy to the area of the chest where the breast was removed. The radiotherapy can reduce the chance of the cancer coming back in that area.

 

How and where you have radiotherapy

You have to travel to hospital for radiotherapy treatment. You have your treatment in the radiotherapy outpatient department. It is split into a course of small treatments. If you were to have the total dose in one go, it would harm normal body tissues too much. So radiotherapy doctors split the dose into smaller doses that you have each day (or on alternate days) over a number of weeks. They call each dose a fraction.

You may have treatment once a day for 3 weeks, from Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend. This means you will need to go to the hospital every weekday for that time. Or you may have treatment on alternate weekdays for 5 weeks. The length of your course of treatment will vary depending on your needs and the hospital where you are treated. The total dose of radiotherapy you get is usually about the same with each of these schedules.

Some trials are looking at giving radiotherapy in different doses. You can read about the trials on our page about research into breast cancer treatment.

 

Planning your treatment

Radiotherapy is specialist treatment and your doctor will plan it very carefully and individually for you. At your first visit you may lie under a large specialised CT scanning machine (as in the picture below). The doctor uses the machine to plan exactly where to give the treatment.

Image of a patient lying under a CT simulator

During planning you have one or more pinprick tattoos made on your skin. The radiographers use these to line up the radiotherapy machine accurately every time you have treatment. They may also draw marks on your body with a felt tip pen. Try not to wash them off. They will fade, though. So tell your radiographer if they fade and they will draw them in again.

 

Having your treatment

Each treatment session only takes a few minutes. The radiographers will help position you on the couch and make sure you are comfortable.

Image of a patient lying under a CT simulator with two radiographers by their side

The staff will leave you alone for the minute or two that the machine is switched on. But they will be able to hear you through an intercom or video link, so you can call if you need them. The treatment doesn't hurt. You will not be able to feel it at all. You must lie very still for the few minutes it takes to treat you.

Having external radiotherapy does not make you radioactive. It is perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, throughout your treatment course.

 

Internal radiotherapy

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued guidance about internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) for breast cancer. Internal radiotherapy to the breast is also called a radiotherapy implant or breast brachytherapy. NICE says  that doctors can use internal radiotherapy to give radiation treatment after surgery if they use it as part of a clinical trial. 

Brachytherapy is a way of giving radiation directly to the area where the cancer was removed. You have a general or a local anaesthetic. Thin hollow tubes or an inflatable balloon are put into your breast. Later, radioactive wires are passed through the middle of the tubes or a small radioactive metal source is put into the balloon.

Diagram showing how you have internal radiotherapy for breast cancer

The radioactive wires may be left in place for a few days, or just inserted for a few minutes. If you are having high dose treatment, you have the treatment for a few minutes over several days. Balloon brachytherapy is always given in short daily sessions. If the wires are left in place for a few days, then you stay in hospital, in a single room. 

Your friends and family will only be allowed to visit for a short time each day. This is so they won't be exposed to radiation. Children and pregnant women will not be allowed to visit you at all.

The radioactivity is in the wires. So the radioactivity goes away when the doctor takes the wires out. Then it is completely safe for you to be with other people including children.

There is information about treatment with radioactive wires in the main radiotherapy section and in our breast cancer research section.

 

More information about radiotherapy

There is detailed information about radiotherapy in our main radiotherapy section. You can find information about

If you have questions you can contact the Cancer Research UK information nurses. If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum. Or go through My Wavelength. This is a free service that aims to put people with similar medical conditions in touch with each other.

Rate this page:
Submit rating

 

Rated 4 out of 5 based on 20 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 22 October 2012