External radiation treatment does not cause you to become radioactive. You will not glow in the dark no matter how many times your grandsons turn the lights off!!
Radiation treatment, also referred to as radiotherapy, is extremely effective at destroying any local cancer cells that may remain after surgery. This targeted treatment can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurring by about 70%. The side effects of the high energy x-rays are limited to the immediate area of treatment and are relatively easy to tolerate.
Surgery does not guarantee the removal of every cancer cell. Cancer cells are small and any cells that are left behind can grow and eventually become a new lump. Radiotherapy prevents local recurrence after breast conserving surgery (lumpectomies).
During surgery maintaining a margin width of greater than 10mm (1cm) between the cancer cells and normal tissue is imperative and more important than any other factor. If you have a large cancer the 1cm margin may not be achievable, the same is true for a smaller cancer in smaller breasts. In these cases, where the 1cm margin is compromised, radiotherapy may be prescribed. Radiation may also be given before surgery to shrink a cancer.
Radiation treatment is also standard therapy where the edges of the cancer are poorly defined. If it is difficult for the surgeon to see where the cancer ends and normal breast tissue begins they will recommend a course of radiation treatment as a precautionary measure.
In medial tumours (inner half of the breast), where there is a chance of internal mammary node involvement (glands under the ribs), the radiotherapist irradiates the remaining breast tissue and may also add an additional blast to the internal mammary nodes.
Your cancer specialist will refer you to a radiation oncologist. Radiation oncologists use a high-energy radiation beam to destroy cancer cells. Radiation is delivered to the affected area via an x-ray type machine known as a linear accelerator.
The radiation is invisible to the human eye but damages cells (normal cells as well as cancer cells) and prevents them from dividing. Normal healthy cells recover from the treatment quite well but, as cancer cells grow and multiply rapidly, they are more easily destroyed by the treatment. As normal tissues require protection from radiation the total amount of radiation delivered is limited to a dosage that the normal tissue can tolerate.
The radiation treatment only takes a few minutes but your appointment will last about 20 minutes as you need to be positioned properly and the radiation fields adjusted.
Radiation treatment is painless, rather like having x-rays. You cannot see or smell the radiation but you may hear a sound when the radiation beam is running. This is normal. Your specialist will define the area to be treated by marking it with tiny dots, ensuring that treatment is delivered to the same area each time. The equipment will be set up; you will be positioned properly and then asked to lie very still. Try to relax and breathe normally.
The therapist will leave the room but monitor you constantly during the treatment. The radiation machine is controlled from the nearby control room. You will be watched on a television screen from the control room. There will also be an intercom system. Should you feel ill or very uncomfortable during the treatment, tell the therapist at once. The machine can be stopped and restarted at any time without compromising the treatment.
Radiation Treatment Tips
• Wear clothes that are easy to remove and replace.
• Before starting treatment advise your radiation oncologist of any medicines you are taking and whether you have any allergies.
• Check with your radiation oncologist before taking vitamin supplements or herbal preparations.
• Fatigue is common during radiation therapy. Get plenty of rest and sleep whenever you feel the need. The fatigue may last for four to six weeks after treatment has been completed.
• Try to eat a well balanced diet that will prevent weight loss.
Looking after the treatment area
• Wear loose, soft cotton clothing over the treated area.
• Do not scratch, rub, or scrub treated skin.
• Do not use tapes on treated skin. If bandaging is necessary, use paper tape and apply it outside of the treatment area.
• Use lukewarm water for washing the treated area.
• Use an electric shaver if you must shave the treated
area. Do not use hair removal products, deoderants or anti-perspirants on the treated area. The area can be dusted with Maizena.
• Protect the treatment area from the sun. Do not apply sunscreens. Cover treated skin with loose, light clothing before going outside.
• Ask your doctor about washing the affected area.
For more tips on coping with treatment related side effects call People Living With Cancer on 073 975 1452 or go to www.plwc.org.za