Radiation Therapy

Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer

Northwestern Medicine offers leading-edge radiation therapy across the Chicagoland area. Surgery can eliminate large cancerous masses, but radiation therapy helps kill the rest of the microscopic cancer cells that may remain in their precise location after surgery. External radiation therapy sends high levels of radiation directly to the tissues that may contain cancer cells. Many patients are able to complete breast radiation therapy in three to four weeks. When treating lymph nodes as well, radiation therapy may take five to six weeks. The type of radiation therapy you receive will depend on many factors. This type of treatment may be combined with chemotherapy to lower the risk of cancer recurrence in the affected breast. You may undergo more than one type of radiotherapy.

Radiation Therapy Overview

Radiation can be delivered to a highly targeted area of your body from an external source. Radiation can also be delivered from an internal source placed into the breast. There are multiple types of radiation therapy. Your physician and care team will use the radiation therapy that fits best with your unique treatment journey and care plan.

Accelerated Breast Radiation Therapy

Northwestern Medicine uses advanced radiation techniques that can significantly shorten the frequency and duration of radiation, which can lessen the inconvenience and stress of traditional treatment courses.

Image-Guided Radiotherapy (IGRT)

A noninvasive radiation method that involves taking frequent images during a course of radiation therapy to improve the precision and accuracy of the radiation delivery.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT)

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is a high-precision radiotherapy that uses many beams and computer-controlled beam-shaping to deliver conformal radiation dose.

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy is a form of targeted radiation therapy that delivers less dose to healthy surrounding tissue.

Roles of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy may be used at different touchpoints in your breast cancer treatment, including:

  • After lumpectomy or mastectomy, to kill the microscopic cancer cells that may have been left behind after surgery.
  • In metastatic breast cancer. Sometimes, breast cancer can spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body. In the case of metastatic breast cancer, radiation therapy may be used to shrink cancer in the spots where it has spread, or help control the spread of cancer in specific spots.
  • After recurrence. If your breast cancer comes back after surgery, radiation therapy may be used to shrink the breast cancer, especially if it was not initially used after surgery.

Your Safety During Radiation Therapy

Radiation kills cancer cells but can also harm healthy cells. Your physician will try to protect your healthy cells during the course of your treatment by using medication and precise targeting. Northwestern Medicine is committed to your safety during your breast cancer treatment. There can be a risk of cardiotoxicity, or damage to the heart with radiation, especially when treating the left breast. There can also risk of damage to the lungs. Your radiation team may use a variety of techniques to protect your heart and lungs, including:

  • Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH) is a technique in which you take a big deep breath into your chest and hold. This moves the heart away from the breast and out of the radiation field
  • Prone Positioning involves laying on your front and letting the breast fall away from the chest with gravity. This can facilitate giving radiation to the breast while avoiding the heart and lung
  • IMRT to increase precision while decreasing unnecessary exposure to healthy tissues
  • Proton Radiotherapy

Side Effects

There may be side effects to radiation therapy. You should be aware of any unusual symptoms after therapy. Let your physician or nurse practitioner know about the following:

  • New lumps or bumps
  • Swelling
  • Bruises
  • Rashes
  • Bleeding
  • Skin peeling
  • Cough, shortness of breath, low grade fever
  • Persistent sore throat