Destroying Breast Cancer with Targeted Radiation Therapy - Virtua Article

Destroy Breast Cancer with Targeted Radiation Therapy

By , Radiation Oncologist—Penn Medicine Virtua Cancer Program

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to obliterate cancer cells. This type of treatment is often used together with surgery and/or chemotherapy to treat breast and other cancers.

Recommending radiation as part of a breast cancer treatment plan can depend on the patient’s age, the type of surgery performed, and whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or elsewhere in the body.

Candidates for breast radiation therapy

Patients diagnosed with breast cancer who underwent lumpectomy (surgery to remove the tumor and an area of normal breast tissue around it) will require radiation therapy to the breast. In addition to breast radiation, some patients will also get radiation therapy to surrounding lymph nodes if those test positive for cancer.

Radiation therapy is recommended for patients who have mastectomies in the following cases:

  • Cancer-positive margins around where the tumor was located
  • Tumor size larger than 5 cm
  • Cancer-positive lymph nodes
  • Other factors that place patients at high risk for cancer recurrence

These patients typically receive radiation therapy to the chest wall and surrounding lymph nodes.

Types of radiation treatments Virtua offers to breast cancer patients

Virtua offers various types of radiation therapy to breast cancer patients including treatments involving the whole breast, partial breast, chest wall, and lymph nodes.  Virtua uses technologically advanced radiation therapy techniques to precisely target tumors and spare normal tissues. This improves overall outcomes and decreases side effects for women with breast cancer. Virtua also offers patients prone (chest down) radiation to protect the heart and lungs. Delivering radiation in this position helps prevent damage to the heart and drastically decreases lung exposure to radiation. In addition, Virtua has a range of clinical trials available to patients.

Possible side effects of radiation treatments

The side effects of radiation may include fatigue and skin irritation such as redness, tanning, itchiness, irritation, and peeling. Long-term effects may include lung scarring or inflammation, brittle ribs or rib fractures, heart damage in left-sided breast cancer patients, and secondary cancers, which are rare. There are late cosmetic effects to the treated breast such as firmness and shrinkage, as well as implant complications in patients who have had breast reconstruction.

In addition, there's a risk of lymphedema, swelling that generally occurs in the arms caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes following radiation and/or surgery. There's no cure for this condition, but it can be managed with early diagnosis and care of the affected limb, including exercise, massage and compression garments that help reduce swelling.

Radiation treatments have improved over the years

Radiation therapy has changed tremendously over the last decade or so. For a long time, the standard post-lumpectomy radiation therapy involved whole breast radiation over a period of 6–7 weeks. Since then, cutting-edge technology and supportive data have opened treatment options for early-stage, node-negative breast cancer patients. Today’s treatments cause fewer side effects and decrease overall treatment time, therefore, reducing the burden on patients who have to travel for radiation therapy. In all, these changes have improved clinical outcomes and quality of care for patients.  

The Penn Medicine Virtua Cancer Program

The Penn Medicine Virtua Cancer Program offers personalized, state-of-the-art cancer treatment, as well as much-needed support and guidance for patients with cancer. Patients are often anxious, confused, and stressed when recently diagnosed and inundated with information. This program provides an important layer of support to help patients and their family members during this challenging time. A range of clinical and non-clinical services are available to assist patients at every point in their care, from diagnosis and treatment to survivorship.

Updated January 4, 2017

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Classes & Support 

Virtua's classes and support groups help you understand and cope with a cancer diagnosis. Topics include:

American Cancer Society's Look Good... Feel Better

Breast Cancer Support Group

Cancer Fitness

Strength after Breast Cancer Education Program

THRIVE: Breast Cancer Awareness Event 

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