Types of Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

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Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is sometimes used to treat breast cancer. It involves the use of ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells for curative purposes if a tumor is localized, or for palliative care to improve comfort and quality of life for incurable cancer. It can also be used in adjuvant therapy to prevent cancer recurrence after the tumor has been removed with a lumpectomy or mastectomy.

Not all women with breast cancer need radiation therapy. It is generally indicated in the following circumstances:

  • After breast-conserving surgery to kill remaining malignant cells so that cancer does not return
  • After a mastectomy if the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters (roughly 2 inches) or if nearby lymph nodes have evidence of cancer
  • With stage 4 breast cancer, when cancer has spread (metastasized) from the breast to other organs in the body

Broadly speaking, there are two types of radiation therapy used to treat breast cancer: external beam radiation and brachytherapy (also known as internal radiation therapy). Each has its specific purpose and indications.

types of radiation
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

How It Works

Radiation is applied to cancer cells to impede their growth. Cancer cells are different from normal cells in several ways. Rather than undergoing apoptosis (programmed cell death) so that old cells can be replaced with new ones, cancer cells survive for longer than healthy cells. Moreover, they multiply at an accelerated rate, allowing them to infiltrate normal tissues.

Radiation therapy works by damaging the cancer cell's DNA. The radiation induces cell death. Beyond the tumor site, radiation can be used to clear cancer from nearby lymph nodes.

To minimize damage to nearby tissues, the affected area will be mapped using a 3D imaging study such as computed tomography (CT). The mapping includes the tumor site, as well as the surrounding tissue margins, where cancer cells comingle with normal ones.

Once mapped, the tumor site can be irradiated from different angles either externally (with ionizing radiation beams) or internally (with encapsulated radioactive materials).

External Beam Radiation

External beam radiation is the most common form of radiation therapy used in breast cancer. The radiation is delivered by a machine that emits a single high-intensity X-ray beam from several directions. The procedure is painless and relatively fast, but it can cause side effects.

The areas of irradiation can vary based on whether you've had a mastectomy or lumpectomy and whether nearby lymph nodes are affected. The guidelines for external beam radiation can be broadly described as follows:

  • If you have had a mastectomy and no lymph nodes are involved, radiation would be focused on the chest wall, the mastectomy scar, and the tissues where surgical drains were placed.
  • If you had a lumpectomy, the entire breast would likely be irradiated (referred to as whole breast radiation) with an extra boost of radiation to the area where the tumor was removed (i.e., the tumor bed).
  • If axillary lymph nodes are involved, radiation may be delivered in the armpit and, in some cases, to the supraclavicular lymph nodes above the collarbone and the internal mammary lymph nodes in the center of the chest.

Radiation can also be used with chemotherapy if a tumor cannot be surgically removed.

Procedure

External beam radiation treatments would start after you heal from breast surgery or completed chemotherapy. The entire schedule of radiation therapy (called the course) is divided into daily treatments referred to as fractions.

Before radiation therapy begins, a radiation oncologist and a radiation therapist will map the treatment area to determine the correct dose and angles of irradiation. The oncologist may apply small ink marks or tattoos to your skin to focus the radiation correctly.

Speak with your oncologist in advance of the procedure to determine if any ink marks will be permanent.

The traditional schedule of whole breast radiation is five days a week, Monday through Friday, for five to six weeks. Each session lasts between 15 and 30 minutes.

In some cases, accelerated breast irradiation (ABI) may be used. With this, stronger radiation doses are given over a shorter period of time.

There are several types of ABI used when appropriate:

  • Hypofractionated radiation therapy is used for people who have undergone a lumpectomy and have no evidence of lymph node involvement. While the procedure is similar to conventional external beam radiation, the dose is higher and the treatment course is reduced to three weeks.
  • 3D-conformal radiotherapy involves a specialized machine that only treats the immediate tumor site rather than the whole breast. It is typically used after a lumpectomy in women with no lymph node involvement. Treatment is delivered twice daily for five days.
  • Intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) also involves specialized equipment and is intended for women with early-stage cancer and no lymph node involvement. For this procedure, a single large dose of radiation is delivered immediately after the lumpectomy while the incision is still open.

Side Effects

External beam radiation can spill over and affect other tissues, including the lungs, ribcage, and surrounding muscles. It can cause both short- and long-term side effects, depending on the size of the dose, the duration of therapy, the location of the tumor, and your general health.

Common short-term side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Breast swelling
  • Skin changes (including redness, darkening, or peeling)

These side effects typically resolve once the therapy is completed, but some may take longer to improve than others. Skin changes, in particular, can take up to a year to normalize and, even then, may not fully return to their pretreatment state.

Long-term side effects may also occur due to the accumulative exposure to radiation.

These include:

  • Radiation-induced fibrosis: The hardening of breast tissue, which is often accompanied by decreased breast size and difficulty breastfeeding
  • Brachial plexopathy: Localized nerve damage, resulting in arm numbness, pain, and weakness
  • Lymphedema: Lymph gland obstruction characterized by swelling of the arm and surrounding tissues
  • Radiation-induced osteopenia: Localized bone loss, which causes an increased risk of rib fracture
  • Angiosarcoma: A rare complication in which radiation therapy triggers cancer

In the past, external beam radiation posed a significant risk of heart and lung damage. Newer generation machines have largely alleviated the risk by reducing radiation spill-over.

Brachytherapy

Brachytherapy, also known as internal radiation therapy, is used after a lumpectomy to irradiate the surgical cavity from within. The radiation is delivered through one or several small tubes, called catheters, that are inserted through the skin of the breast. Radioactive seeds, pellets, tapes, or ribbons are then fed into the catheters and left for several minutes or days before being removed.

Brachytherapy can be used with whole breast radiation or on its own as a form of accelerated partial breast irradiation (APBI).

There are two types of brachytherapy commonly used in breast cancer:

  • Interstitial breast brachytherapy involves the placement of several catheters in the breast for radiation to be strategically delivered in and around the tumor site.
  • Intracavity breast brachytherapy, also known as balloon brachytherapy, is used after a lumpectomy to deliver radiation to the breast cavity via an inflatable balloon filled with radioactive pellets.

Another type of brachytherapy, known as permanent breast seed implant (PBSI), may be used in early-stage cancer. It involves the permanent implantation of low-dose radioactive seeds to prevent cancer recurrence. After several months, the seeds will lose their radioactivity.

Procedure

As with external beam radiation, brachytherapy requires careful mapping of the surgical cavity. Prior to the delivery of radiation, one or more catheters would be inserted into the breast, either during the lumpectomy or with a separate procedure. The catheters are kept in place for the duration of therapy with a short length of tubing extending outside of the breast.

The type and dose of radioactive materials (typically iodine, palladium, cesium, or iridium) can vary by the treatment approach. They can range from ultra-low-dose rate (ULDR) seeds used for PBSI to high-dose-rate (HDR) implants commonly used for APBI.

Once the correct dose and coordinates have been established, the external catheter is connected to a machine called an afterloader that feeds the radioactive source through the catheters and removes them once the fraction is complete.

Compared to the five to six weeks needed for external beam radiation, breast brachytherapy can be completed in three or seven days.

Intracavity brachytherapy is commonly performed over five days and involves two 10- to 20-minute sessions delivered six hours apart. Interstitial brachytherapy, which is less commonly used, may be performed as an in-hospital procedure over one or two days.

Side Effects

Brachytherapy can cause many of the same side effects as external beam radiation, although they tend to be less severe.

Because brachytherapy involves one or more small incisions, there is an added risk of infection, particularly if the catheter site gets wet or is not cleaned. In some cases, a pocket of fluid, called a seroma, may develop beneath the skin. This requires drainage with a needle.

Proton Beam Therapy

Proton beam therapy, also known as proton therapy, is an advanced method of radiation that poses less harm to surrounding tissues. The radiation emitted in proton therapy does not travel beyond the tumor.

The charged particles, called protons, only release their energy as they reach their target. This reduces the exit dose of radiation that can harm collateral tissues. Side effects are similar to other types of radiation therapy, but are generally less severe.

Proton therapy has been around since 1989 and is used to treat certain cancers (including prostate cancer and lymphoma). Research is ongoing to determine whether it would be effective for treating breast cancer.

The cost and availability of proton therapy remain significant barriers to its use.

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