Radiation therapy is a form of cancer treatment that is used to destroy cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors. It is also known as radiotherapy.1 In high doses, radiation therapy can be used to treat cancer or ease cancer related symptoms. Usually, radiation therapy is used in conjunction with other forms of treatment.1 For example, radiation therapy can be used before surgery to reduce the size of the tumor to the point where surgery is possible. It can also be used after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells that were not removed during the surgery.
Radiation therapy is an important part of cancer treatment for many patients, but like most treatments and procedures, it does have risks and side effects. This article will outline the long-term effects of radiation therapy and focus on the long-term effects of breast cancer radiation.
Types of Radiation Therapy
When talking about radiation therapy, there are two types of treatment that are normally considered. These are external beam radiation and internal radiation (also known as brachytherapy).2
External beam radiation is a form of radiation therapy where bursts of radiation are directed at the tumor or a specific area on the body where the cancer is located. This treatment is usually performed using a machine called a linear accelerator.3 Although external beam radiation targets specific areas of the body, it’s more likely than internal radiation therapy to damage surrounding tissue. External beam radiation short-term side effects include changes to the skin, nausea, and tiredness.3
Internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy, is a process where radioactive material are inserted into the body.4 The radioactive material is inserted either in or near the cancerous tumor and left in the body for anywhere between several hours and several days, slowly irradiating the cancer. Side effects of internal radiation therapy are rarer than with external beam radiation, but include minor pain or discomfort around the area of the radioactive material as well as redness, bruising, breakdown of fatty tissue, and weakness.4,5
Radiation Long-Term Side Effects
The long-term effects of breast cancer radiation therapy vary from person to person. Two of the more common long-term effects of radiation include damage to the body and an increased risk of cancer in the future.6
Unfortunately, radiation can affect normal cells, not just the cancerous cells. Because of the damaging effects of radiation, one of the long-term side effects of radiation therapy includes the possible damage to other parts of the body in and around the site of irradiation. For example, it’s possible that radiation therapy targeted at cancerous breast tissue could damage organs behind the breast, such as the heart and lung.6
Another potential side effect is that radiation therapy can increase a patient’s risk of developing a cancer in the future. Radiation has been linked to an increased risk for other cancers later on in life. Several studies have been performed showing that, although radiation helps kill cancer cells, the neighboring healthy tissue that gets damaged in the process has a risk of becoming cancerous as well.6
Some specific types of radiation have unique long-term side effects. External beam radiation long-term side effects include, a reduction in breast size, problems breastfeeding, nerve damage, chest pain and weakness.5
Managing Long-Term Effects of Breast Cancer Radiation
Not all patients will experience long-term side effects of radiation.7 Armpit discomfort, chest pain, fatigue, heart problems, lowered white blood cell count, lung and skin problems are all possible radiation long-term side effects of radiation therapy that a patient may or may not experience. It’s also important to remember that not all of these are necessarily symptoms of radiation treatment. For example, one can experience fatigue for a variety of reasons and it’s not necessarily due to the radiation therapy.
In the end, although radiation therapy can produce several negative side effects a women may prefer to avoid, the alternative is an incomplete cancer treatment. This is why it’s likely better to manage the long-term side effects than avoid them. Each of these side effects comes with it’s own methods of care and management. It’s important to pay close attention to physical changes and act in accordance with a doctor to manage these side effects.
One of the more common side effects patients experience during radiation therapy is skin damage. Radiation therapy is in some ways similar to sun exposure. The skin becomes red and irritated and the patient may experience some tenderness, itching and peeling.8 To manage this common problem, try treating the irritated skin as if it were sunburn. Replace hot water for warm water when showering and avoid direct water-to-skin contact, avoid tight fitting clothes and prolonged exposure to the sun.
A doctor should be able to help in managing other symptoms as they appear.
Radiation therapy is a serious treatment that has provided many patients with positive results regarding their cancer treatment. In no way does this mean that it doesn’t come at a cost. Although some may never experience short-term or long-term side effects, many will. With help however, these side effects are mostly manageable and within your ability to handle. Hopefully now you feel more prepared to handle the long-term effects of radiation.
- Radiation Therapy. National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health. Feb. 2, 2017. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy
- Radiation Therapy for Cancer. National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health. June 30, 2010. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/radiation-therapy/radiation-fact-sheet
- External Beam Radiation Therapy (EBRT). Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://www.cancercenter.com/treatments/external-beam-radiation-therapy/
- Dutta, Pinaki. Vachani, Carolyn. Internal Radiation Therapy. OncoLink. Dec 4, 2006. https://www.oncolink.org/cancer-treatment/radiation/treatment/internal-radiation-therapy-brachytherapy
- Radiation for Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society. Aug 18, 2016. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment/radiation-for-breast-cancer.html