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Radiation therapy is a type of surgical procedure that uses high-powered rays in order to keep cancer cells from spreading through growth or division. Radiation therapy is commonly utilized in getting rid of dead or additional cancer cells that may be lingering in the tissue of the breast after other types of surgery. Radiation therapy is used on about half of all cancer patients.
Radiation therapy may also be effective in shrinking tumors. In women with early stage breast cancer, radiation may be used after lumps have been taken out. During these common lumpectomies the cancerous breast lump and some of the surrounding tissue is surgically removed.
The surgery, known as breast-conserving therapy, is usually followed by a couple of months of radiation therapy. The additional radiation therapy is used to ensure that the cancer cells are completely eradicated and do not re-grow. Radiation therapy has also been effectively used in killing cancer cells following mastectomy. Radiation therapy for breast cancer has also been effective in shrinking the tumors of women who have advanced breast cancer, making them less dangerous.
The two types of radiation therapy are dubbed external and internal. External radiation therapy is the most common method and involved a machine that shoots radiation into the body. Internal radiation therapy occurs with implantable devices near the tumor and usually requires hospital stays.
External radiation treatments take place on an outpatient basis. The experience is akin to having an x-ray performed, though external radiation therapy involves much higher doses of radiation. External radiation therapy may occur as frequently as five times a week for two months. The treatment takes about half an hour.
Side effects of external radiation therapy most often include some amount of fatigue, though the severity can vary. Many people find that rest is enough to help with the tiring aspect of external radiation therapy. Other side effects include a reduction of white blood cells, breast tenderness, reddened appearance of the breast, and loss of appetite. The side effects usually go away with time.
Internal radiation therapy, called Brachytherapy, is still an experimental type of treatment for breast cancer. Surgical implants of small plastic tubes are placed in the breast that feed pellets of radioactive substances into the surrounding tissue. There is very little occurrence of side effects with internal radiation therapy, though it is not a common form of treatment for breast cancer.
While experimentation continues and research uncovers further information about breast cancer, the best course of action happens with early detection. Seeing a doctor and performing frequent breast exams are both key in stopping potential cases of breast cancer.