What you can expect

The typical schedule for external radiation therapy is five days a week for four to six weeks. You'll receive radiation as an outpatient at a hospital or other treatment facility. You may be able to schedule your sessions at the same time each day.

The duration of internal radiation therapy for breast cancer is much shorter, usually five days. Internal radiation sessions are typically done on an outpatient basis.

External radiation

A typical radiation therapy session generally follows this process:

  • When you arrive at the hospital or treatment facility, you're taken to a special room that's used specifically for radiation therapy.
  • You may need to remove your clothes and put on a hospital gown.
  • The radiation therapist helps you into the position you were in during the simulation process.
  • The therapist leaves the room and turns on the machine that delivers the radiation (linear accelerator).
  • Although the therapist isn't in the room during the treatment, he or she will monitor you from another room on a television screen. Usually you and the therapist can talk through an intercom. If you feel sick or uncomfortable, tell your therapist, who can stop the process if necessary.

Delivery of the radiation lasts a few minutes, but expect to spend 15 to 30 minutes for each visit.

A newer method is accelerated partial breast irradiation. This method targets radiation at the breast area that contained the tumor, rather than the entire breast. It's also given in fewer, higher doses than is standard external beam radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy is painless. You may feel some discomfort from lying in the required position, but this is generally short-lived.

After the session, you're free to go about your regular activities. Generally no special precautions are needed.

In some cases, once the main radiation therapy sessions have been completed, your doctor may recommend a boost treatment to the tumor bed to further reduce the risk of recurrence. A radiation boost may involve more external radiation therapy sessions or internal radiation therapy.

Internal radiation

For internal radiation, the radioactive seeds are inserted twice a day for a few minutes in the implanted radiation device. This is usually done on an outpatient basis, and you can leave between sessions.

After the course of treatment is over, the device is removed. Usually you're given pain medication before the holders are removed. The area may be sore or tender for a few months.

Oct. 27, 2016
References
  1. Radiation therapy for breast cancer. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/detailedguide/breast-cancer-treating-radiation. Accessed Aug. 28, 2016.
  2. De Los Santos JF. Adjuvant radiation therapy for women with newly diagnosed, non-metastatic breast cancer. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 16, 2016.
  3. Pierce LJ. Radiation therapy techniques for newly diagnosed, non-metastatic breast cancer. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Aug. 16, 2016.
  4. Breast cancer. Fort Washington, Pa.: National Comprehensive Cancer Network. http://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/f_guidelines.asp. Accessed May 5, 2016.
  5. Understanding radiation therapy. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/radiation-therapy/understanding-radiation-therapy. Accessed Aug. 28, 2016.
  6. Radiation therapy and you: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/radiation-therapy-and-you. Accessed Aug. 28, 2016.