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What are the Most Common Breast Cancer Radiation Side Effects?

By H. Colledge
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Radiation is sometimes used to treat breast cancer, by directing rays at the tumor and surrounding tissues. If treatment is successful, the rays kill breast cancer cells and shrink breast tumors, but there are a number of potential breast cancer radiation side effects. Those which commonly occur during treatment include tiredness, sore, red skin and swelling. Following breast cancer radiation therapy, longer term side effects may occur, such as shrinking and hardening of breast tissue, and changes in the appearance of the skin.

Radiotherapy normally involves having one short session every day for a period of several weeks, with breaks at weekends. It does not cause people to become radioactive and they can safely mix with others after treatments. One of the most common breast cancer radiation side effects, feeling tired during treatment, arises from the body's efforts to repair healthy cells which have been damaged along with the cancerous ones. Variable degrees of tiredness may be experienced, but some people are unable to carry out normal daily activities during their breast cancer treatments. Tiredness can be managed by reducing activities both during and for some weeks following treatment.

Skin changes are one of the common breast cancer radiation side effects. While treatment is being carried out, a type of radiation burn may occur, resembling sunburn, where the skin becomes redder or darker. It may be itchy or tender, and could begin to peel. Skin changes may be associated with mild chest pain, ranging from a dull ache to a sharp twinge, experienced in the area around the breast. Sometimes, blood vessels beneath the skin become dilated, appearing as a blotchy skin rash on the breast.

Changes affecting the skin can be minimized by avoiding scented products and tight clothing, and protecting the affected area from sunlight. It can be beneficial to leave armpit hair unshaved, and to wash and dry irritated skin carefully and gently, avoiding soaking it for too long in water. Breast cancer radiation side effects of soreness and swelling which are experienced during radiation treatment usually fade over time. Occasionally a type of swelling known as lymphedema can occur, which tends to affect the arm on the treated side of the body. This is caused by damage to the lymph system and is normally treated by a specialist.

In the longer term, shrinkage of breast tissue is one of the more common breast cancer radiation side effects, and rarely this can make one breast appear smaller than the other. Sometimes, radiation also causes scar tissue buildup that makes the breast feel quite hard. Shoulder movement may be affected, becoming slightly restricted, and this can be treated using exercises under the guidance of a physiotherapist.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Sep 15, 2014

The more radiation treatments a person has, the worse the side effects get. I have a friend who had 36 treatments. She had radiation six days a week.

By the end of her treatment, she said the skin on her breast looked like it was melting, in spite of everything she did. About six weeks after the treatments ended, she said her skin was looking like a bad prune. She started putting aloe vera gel on it in the mornings and lotion at night after her shower. She said that helped. She also said the fatigue was awful, but she was also taking chemotherapy at the same time, so it was a double whammy.

By Pippinwhite — On Sep 14, 2014

A breast cancer patient should always have physical therapy, in my opinion. If she has had a mastectomy, physical therapy can help minimize lymphedema. If she has radiation, the therapy can help her maintain mobility on the affected side. In any case, it surely can't hurt her.

A former co-worker had an aggressive form of breast cancer and had radiation. After three treatments, she looked like she had the worst sunburn ever. Her doctor advised her to use aloe vera gel on her skin for the burns and she said it helped.

Unfortunately, she postponed going to the doctor for too long, and there just wasn't much they could do.

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