Radiation therapy clears cancer cells that may be left behind in your breast, your chest wall, or the lymph nodes in your armpit, chest, or neck after breast cancer surgery.
At Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), radiation oncologists from UW Medicine provide treatment to eliminate your disease, protect your health, and cause the least possible side effects. We know treatment can be stressful, and we do all we can to help you feel comfortable and confident every step of the way.
- The radiation oncologists on your SCCA team specialize in breast cancer treatment and have extensive experience with every type, grade, and stage of the disease.
- We use state-of-the art equipment and technology to design and deliver treatment that gives you the best possible outcome—such as an advanced system that uses multiple cameras to make sure the radiation beam aligns precisely with the area you need treated.
- Breast cancer treatment is highly coordinated at SCCA. Your radiation oncologist works closely with your breast surgeon, medical oncologist, breast radiologist, pathologist, breast reconstruction surgeon, and others so you receive coordinated care.
- SCCA participates in national clinical trials to study different radiation doses, schedules, and delivery methods; whether all women need radiation to their lymph nodes; and other ways to reduce side effects and improve results.
Why Is Radiation Therapy Used?
Some microscopic cancer cells may remain even after your surgeon removes your tumor along with a margin of cancer-free tissue.
If You Have a Lumpectomy
Having radiation therapy after a lumpectomy may mean you can keep more of your breast tissue while also significantly lowering the chance of cancer recurring in your breast.
If You Have a Mastectomy
Many women do not need radiation therapy after a mastectomy because all the breast tissue on the side of their cancer was removed. However, some may be at higher risk for recurrence, even after a mastectomy, so your team may recommend radiation therapy to reduce your risk.
Most women with breast cancer receive external-beam radiation therapy to their whole breast. In this form of therapy, a machine generates radiation beams and aims them at your breast, where cancer cells might remain.
What to Expect
You will likely have radiation therapy every day, Monday through Friday, for three to six weeks, depending on your specific situation.
- Each radiation treatment takes only a few minutes. The whole appointment takes about half an hour.
- Your SCCA radiation oncologist will see you every week to check how your treatment is going and to answer your questions or help with any concerns you might have.
Your Radiation Therapy Team
Along with your radiation oncologist, your team includes highly experienced radiation dosimetrists and medical radiation physicists, who help design your individualized treatment, as well as radiation therapists and radiation oncology nurses to take care of you.
- Your radiation oncology nurse will show you how to take care of your skin (which can be irritated by radiation therapy). We provide all the skin-care products you will need.
- We will also give you an on-call phone number for after-hours questions or concerns.
Precise Targeting to Reduce Your Risks
Together, your SCCA radiation oncologist, dosimetrist, and physicist design a radiation therapy plan to target the tissue that needs treatment and while limiting the effects of radiation to the rest of your body. To do this, we rely on:
- Precise measurements
- Advanced imaging, such as computed tomography (CT) scans
- Specialized computers with sophisticated radiation treatment planning software
- A radiation therapy team with broad knowledge and experience in breast cancer treatment
- When you’re aligned, a green light shines on you, letting you and the team know.
- If you shift out of alignment, the light turns red and the beam automatically stops.
- The system lets you and your team know how to adjust your position so you’re in just the right spot to proceed.
Accelerated partial breast irradiation (APBI) is a safe option for some women with early-stage breast cancer who are having a lumpectomy. SCCA participated in a national study comparing this approach with standard external-beam radiation therapy.
In APBI, only part of the breast receives radiation, using a device placed inside the breast. This means maximum radiation to the tissue at high risk for cancer with less radiation to surrounding healthy tissues. Treatment is given twice a day for five days.
Read more about radiation oncology, including different types of radiation therapy, what to expect, and how to take care of yourself during treatment.