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Radiation Therapy and Side EffectsFact Sheet
Radiation therapy has some side effects. Some begin during treatment, while others may occur months or even years later.
Most often, side effects from radiation therapy begin within a few weeks of starting treatment and go away within a few weeks after treatment ends .
During and just after treatment, your treated breast may be sore. Talk with your radiation oncologist about using mild pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease breast tenderness.
The treated breast may also be rough to the touch, red (like a sunburn) and swollen. Sometimes the skin may peel, as if it were sunburned. Your radiation oncologist may suggest special creams to ease this discomfort. Sometimes the skin peels further and the area may become tender and sensitive (called a moist reaction). This is most common in the skin folds and the underside of the breast. If this occurs, let your oncologist or nurse know, and he/she can give you creams and pads to make the area more comfortable until it heals.
Fatigue is common during radiation therapy and may last for several weeks after treatment ends.
Nausea is not common with radiation therapy. And, you won’t lose the hair on your head. However, you may lose some hair under the arm or on the breast or chest area receiving radiation (this may be an issue for some men with breast cancer).
Learn more about easing pain related to radiation therapy.
Learn more about fatigue.
Over time, you may notice firmness or shrinkage of the breast. You may also have mild tanning of the skin where the breast was treated or red discoloration, especially around the surgical scar(s). These changes may be permanent.
Women who get radiation therapy to the lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary nodes) or who have axillary nodes removed may develop lymphedema. Lymphedema is a condition in which fluid collects in the arm (or other areas such as the hand, fingers, chest or back), causing it to swell. The chances of getting lymphedema are greater if your treatment includes both [16-17]:
Lymphedema is also more likely in women who are overweight [16-17].
Learn more about lymphedema.
Although rare with modern treatment, radiation therapy can injure the normal tissues near the radiation field of the breast or chest wall. Rare side effects include:
Very rare side effects include:
These conditions may occur a few months or years after radiation therapy.
In rare cases, radiation therapy can cause a second cancer. The most common cancers that have been linked to radiation therapy are sarcomas (cancers of the connective tissue) [18-19]. However, the risk of a second cancer is very small and the benefits of radiation therapy almost always outweigh the risks.
Komen Support Resources
Facts for Life: What is Breast Cancer
Breast Cancer 101
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