What Happens During Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

What happens during radiation therapy depends on whether you get external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) or internal radiation therapy, which is also called brachytherapy. EBRT is the more common way to have radiation therapy for breast cancer. This is how it works.

After enough time has gone by for your surgery wound to heal (often about 2 to 3 weeks), a team of radiation specialists will carefully figure out where to focus the radiation. Then they will mark your body with ink so that they know exactly where to aim the beam of radiation. Usually it's aimed at the whole breast. Sometimes it has to be aimed under your arm and at other parts of your chest, too. It depends on how advanced your cancer is. If you need to lie in an awkward position, the radiologist may make a mold of your body, which can be used to support you and keep you from moving during the treatment.

The treatment itself is like having a regular X-ray, but the radiation is stronger. Once you are set up and in place, the treatment lasts only a few minutes and is painless.

In most cases, you'll have to go for radiation 5 days a week for about 6 weeks. If you have a more frequent type of radiation, you may have to go to the radiation center twice a day and receive a larger dose of radiation over a shorter period of time. If you're getting chemotherapy after your surgery, the doctors may have you wait until the end of chemotherapy to begin your radiation treatments.

For internal radiation therapy, the radiation is directed from inside the body. The radiation therapist places small thin hollow tube called a catheter directly into the breast where the tumor used to be. Radioactive seeds or pellets are then inserted into the catheter for short periods of time each day and then removed when treatment is completed. If your doctor does recommend internal radiation, you'll most likely have it along with or even, in some cases, in place of external radiation.