Radiation therapy to the breast can cause some side effects. Some begin during treatment. Others may occur months or even years later.
It’s normal to worry about possible side effects of radiation therapy.
Talk with your health care provider about your concerns.
Your provider may be able to suggest a hospital social worker, patient navigator, psychologist or support group to help ease anxiety related to radiation therapy (or breast cancer).
Learn more about support groups.
Most often, side effects from radiation therapy begin within a few weeks of starting treatment and go away within 2 weeks after treatment ends .
Let your radiation oncologist or nurse know how the sessions are making you feel. They may be able to treat or prevent many side effects, or change your treatment plan to reduce them.
During and just after treatment, your treated breast may be sore. Talk with your health care provider about using mild pain relievers such as ibuprofen, naproxen 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 sunburned. Your provider 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 a moist reaction occurs, let your provider know. Your provider can give you creams and pads to make the area more comfortable until it heals.
Learn more about easing pain related to radiation therapy.
Learn about long-term skin changes due to radiation therapy.
Fatigue is common during radiation therapy and may last for several weeks after treatment ends.
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 have 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 [4,11]:
Being overweight also increases the risk of lymphedema [4,11].
Learn more about lymphedema.
Nausea is rare with radiation therapy for breast cancer.
You won’t lose the hair on your head. However, you may lose some hair under your arm or on the breast or chest area getting radiation (this may be a concern for some men with breast cancer).
Although rare with modern treatment, the conditions below may occur a few months or years after radiation therapy.
Rib fracture can occur when the radiation weakens the rib cage near the treatment area. This is rare with modern treatment.
If radiation therapy is given to the left side of the chest, heart problems may develop years later.
Many techniques are now used to limit this risk and with modern radiation therapy, the risk of heart problems is almost always very small .
Radiation pneumonitis is an inflammation of the lungs that can cause shortness of breath, a dry cough and low-grade fever. It's rare with modern treatment and almost always goes away with time.
Anti-inflammatory drugs can often relieve symptoms.
Brachial plexopathy can happen when radiation damages nerves in the upper chest. It may cause permanent tingling, pain and weakness in the affected hand and arm.
Nerve problems are very rare with modern treatment.
In rare cases, radiation therapy to the breast can cause a second cancer.
The most common cancers linked to radiation therapy are sarcomas (cancers of the connective tissue) [13-14]. For women who are long-term smokers, radiation therapy may also increase the risk of lung cancer .
The risk of a second cancer is very small. If your radiation oncologist recommends radiation therapy, the benefits of radiation therapy almost always outweigh this risk.
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Radiation Therapy and Side Effects
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