During this procedure, high-energy x-rays are
aimed at the breast and sometimes at nearby areas that still
contain some lymph nodes, such as under the arm (if only a
"sampling" was done), above the collarbone, and along the
breastbone. The goal of radiation therapy is to destroy any cancer
cells that may still remain in the breast or surrounding lymph node
These high-energy x-rays are delivered by a linear accelerator
or a cobalt machine. The difference between the two machines is
simply that the beams are produced by different energy sources.
Often, a patient's first visit to the radiation department takes
1 to 2 hours and doesn't involve any treatments. You will probably
talk with the radiation therapist, a physician with special
training in the use of radiation, who will review your records and
decide the best way to proceed with your treatment.
You will probably also meet the technician who delivers the
treatment, and the radiation therapy nurse, who works closely with
the doctor and can answer any questions you have about treatment,
potential side effects, and what you can do about them.
During the first visit, ink lines or small tattoo marks will be
drawn on your skin around the treatment area to mark exactly where
to aim the radiation. The marks are generally made with permanent
ink, and you should not attempt to wash them off until treatment is
completed. These marks ensure that the area treated is the same
every day. Many women wear old under-clothes during treatment
because the marking may stain clothing.
The radiation therapist will consult with the dosimetrist, who
computes the dosages of radiation. The standard treatment for early
stage breast cancer is almost always 4,400 to 5,000
(radiation absorbed dose). A rad refers to the amount of radiation
that is absorbed by the breast tissue.
Your actual number of treatments will depend on the total dose
you need. Usually, treatments are given 5 days a week, Monday
through Friday, for about 5 weeks. To protect normal tissue, it is
better to give a little radiation each day than to give a lot of
radiation all at once. A single treatment takes about 20 to 25
minutes. Only a few minutes of this time are of exposure to
radiation; most of the time is spent putting the patient in
position. Most people continue to work or pursue other activities
throughout the treatment period.
It is very important to have all your treatments. However, if
you have to miss a treatment, it can be made up. If you do not
finish the full course, you may not have gotten enough radiation to
destroy the cancer cells.
For more information about what to expect during radiation
therapy, contact the National Cancer Institute for a copy of
Radiation Therapy and You: A Guide to Self-Help During