Radiation Therapy

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy destroys cancer cells that may be left behind in your breast, your chest wall, or the lymph nodes in your armpit after breast cancer surgery. Some cancer cells may remain even after the surgeon removes your tumor along with a margin of cancer-free normal breast tissue. Delivering radiation treatment to the breast following a lumpectomy allows a woman to preserve her breast while significantly lowering the chance of recurrence. In some cases, radiation treatment is also recommended after a mastectomy for women at high risk for recurrence.

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External-Beam Radiation Therapy

External beam radiation therapy is typically delivered daily, five days a week (Monday through Friday) using a machine called a linear accelerator. Each appointment lasts approximately 30 minutes and the radiation treatment itself lasts only minutes. For the treatment of breast cancer, the standard of care after a lumpectomy has been radiation to the breast for six to six and a half weeks.  More recent studies have shown a course of three to four weeks to be as effective and safe in some patients. 

SCCA also offers a shorter course of treatment to patients who need to complete radiation in a more timely manner.

SCCA's linear accelerators and equipment are state of the art, which allows our physicians and treatment team to design and deliver radiation treatment that can protect normal tissues. At the SCCA clinic on Lake Union, we offer additional protection to the heart by treating patients with a breath-hold technique. With leading-edge technology, we can detect body position and movement to less than 1/100th of an inch.

Learn more about external-beam radiation therapy in the radiation oncology section.

Protecting the Heart with Breath-Hold using Calypso

Many studies have shown that there is an association between radiation exposure to the heart and an increased risk of developing heart disease as a long-term side effect. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to minimize this exposure when women receive radiation for breast cancer. To achieve this, patients can take a deep breath during the radiation treatment. 

By performing this maneuver, the heart naturally moves away from the breast, and out of the radiation beam path. At SCCA, our technique is novel in that it utilizes the Calypso system which is comprised of infrared cameras, radiofrequency detectors, and safe electromagnetic transponders that are about the size of a grain of rice. Although Calypso was originally invented for prostate cancer, we have now developed a novel technique utilizing it for breast cancer.

SCCA is one of three centers in the country that currently offers this treatment and has been leading the efforts in continued research. We will be conducting a multi-institutional registry trial in which patients can participate.This non-invasive method of placing the transponders on the skin surface allows us to precisely track the exact position of the patient's body in real-time during treatment down to a millimeter. By doing this, we can greatly reduce the dose of radiation to the heart, and lower the risks of developing heart disease in the future. 

Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation

Accelerated partial breast irradiation is a safe option for a select group of women with early stage breast cancer. SCCA is participating in a national study that has already enrolled over 4,000 women. This study is comparing standard external beam radiation therapy with accelerated partial breast irradiation. We offer enrollment to all patients who are eligible.

If accelerated partial breast irradiation is an appropriate option based on the stage and other unique features of your cancer, it can offer certain advantages. Partial breast irradiation can further spare surrounding tissues from radiation exposure. It is delivered twice a day for a total of five days. For women who have received radiation to the chest for another cancer, this may be an option to lower the chance of side effects.

There are several techniques that are available to deliver accelerated partial breast irradiation. It can be delivered on a linear accelerator or through devices that are placed in the breast itself. Which technique is most appropriate depends on several factors that your radiation oncologist can discuss with you.

There are many eligibility requirements for accelerated partial breast irradiation. If you are interested in this option, talk with our radiation oncologists to find out more.

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy for breast cancer can cause side effects. During treatment, the most common side effect will be a skin reaction. The degree of reaction varies from person to person, but ranges from a general pinkness to areas of peeling or skin breakdown near the end of the treatment course. Your SCCA radiation oncology team will be closely monitoring your skin throughout you entire treatment and is very experienced in both preventing and managing these effects. Some patients also experience mild fatigue during the course of radiation. Potential long-term side effects will be discussed with you by your radiation oncologist. As part of your radiation therapy design, we pay the utmost attention to minimizing radiation exposure to nearby organs such as the lung and heart.

General information is available on our site in the symptom management section.