Radiation therapy is usually prescribed following surgery to reduce the risk of local recurrence of cancer in the breast. It may be prescribed along with chemotherapy or delivered alone.
Radiation therapy uses high levels of radiation to kill cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy cells. Treatment is usually 10 minutes a day, five days a week for six weeks, but can vary according to the patient’s diagnosis. Depending on the type and stage of the cancer, radiation may be applied to the breast alone or to the breast and lymph nodes in the neck. “The goal of using radiation following surgery is to prevent the cancer from returning,” says Radiation Oncologist Florian Ploch, M.D., medical director of radiation oncology at the NorthBay Cancer Center in Fairfield. “When the patient reaches us following a lumpectomy or mastectomy, the cancer has been removed. We’re applying radiation to ensure that any stray cancer cells around the surgical site are killed.”
Statistics show that radiation therapy following breast cancer surgery reduced recurrence by 70 percent.
Before radiation therapy begins, each patient’s treatment is carefully planned. The patient first visits a simulator, where a precise treatment area is mapped. The treatment field is marked on the patient’s skin and that exact area will receive the daily radiation. Once the treatment area is established, Dr. Ploch works with a dosimetrist and a medical physicist, who calculate the precise dose of radiation needed.
“My goal is to always use the simplest, safest and most direct way to reach and treat the tumor,” says Susan Kiefer, RRT, CMD, the medical dosimetrist at NorthBay Cancer Center. Kiefer uses computers and 3-D graphics to design the optimum treatment plan, based on the latest diagnostic imaging technology.
When the treatment plan is complete, the patient is scheduled to begin radiation therapy treatments. Radiation is delivered by a piece of equipment known as a linear accelerator, which delivers high energy x-rays directly to the treatment site. The x-rays damage the genetic material of cancer cells, making it impossible for them to divide. And while healthy cells may also be damaged, they are able to repair themselves and function normally.
While radiation therapy is painless, side effects may include irritation similar to a sun burn, mild to moderate breast swelling and fatigue.