Whole breast radiation therapy (WBRT) uses high-powered x-rays to kill breast cancer cells.
Cancer cells multiply faster than normal cells in the body. Because radiation is most harmful to quickly growing cells, radiation therapy damages cancer cells more than normal cells. This prevents the cancer cells from growing and dividing, and leads to cell death.
This type of radiation is delivered by an x-ray machine that targets radiation either to the whole breast, or the chest wall (if done after mastectomy). Sometimes, radiation will also target the lymph nodes in the armpit or neck area or under the breast bone.
You may receive radiation treatment either in a hospital or in a private outpatient radiation center. You will go home after each treatment. A typical course of treatment is given 5 days a week for 3 to 6 weeks. Each treatment is scheduled the same time each day for your convenience.
Before you have any radiation treatment, you will meet with the radiation oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in radiation therapy.
There are several ways the doctor and therapists may place little marks on your skin that can help make sure the radiation is pointed at the cancer but not at healthy tissue.
During each treatment session:
After surgery, cancer cells may remain in the breast tissue or lymph nodes. Radiation can help kill the remaining cancer cells. When radiation is delivered after surgery is performed, it is called adjuvant (additional) treatment.
WBRT may be given:
Tell your health care provider what medicines you are taking.
Wear loose-fitting clothes to the treatments.
You are not radioactive after radiation treatments. It is safe to be around others, including babies or children. As soon as the machine stops, there is no more radiation in the room.
Radiation therapy, like any cancer therapy, can also damage or kill healthy cells. The death of healthy cells can lead to side effects. These side effects depend on the dose of radiation and how often you have the therapy.
Side effects can develop early during treatment (within a few weeks) and be short-lived, or they may be more lasting long-term side effects. Late side effects can happen months or years later.
Early side effects 1 to 3 weeks after your first treatment may include:
Most of these changes should go away about 4 to 6 weeks after the radiation treatment is over.
Your provider will explain care at home during and after radiation treatment.
Late (long-term) side effects may include:
WBRT following breast-conserving surgery reduces the risk of cancer coming back and of death from breast cancer.
Reviewed By: David Herold, MD, Radiation Oncologist in West Palm Beach, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.