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Breast Cancer Radiation

Breast cancer cells grow more quickly than normal cells. However, their internal structures are dysfunctional. Healthy, normal cells grow more slowly, but they are stronger, have organized internal functions and heal more quickly than cancer cells. Cancer cells are more susceptible than healthy cells to the damaging effects of radiation therapy. Healthy cells can repair themselves and recover, whereas cancer cells are destroyed. This is the theory behind the treatment program of radiation therapy.

The first step in the treatment of cancer is usually surgery. Although surgery can remove most of the tumor, there may be microscopic cancer cells remaining behind. Without treatment, these cancer cells can grow and spread. This is when radiation therapy is used. Also, radiation therapy can be used in the place of surgery if the patient’s health doesn’t permit an operation, or if the surgeon believes the tumor cannot be removed safely, or if the patient refuses surgery. Occasionally, radiation therapy is used before surgery to shrink the size of the tumor.

Radiation therapy treatment usually begins one month after surgery. A machine called a linear accelerator uses high energy gamma rays to bombard the area where the tumor was removed and stop any remaining cancer cells from growing. This therapy is referred to as external beam radiation. The experience is like having a normal x-ray, but for a longer period. X-rays, or gamma rays, are not felt by the patient undergoing the treatment, so the actual exposure is painless. Patients are usually treated five times per week for a six week period, and each treatment only lasts a few minutes. Side effects of external beam radiation include fatigue, neutropenia (a decrease in the white blood cell count), swelling, a sun-burn type rash, and a loss of appetite. Most of these side effects disappear in the six months after the procedure has ended. However, a few women may experience chronic swelling, or a decreased or increased sensitivity in the area, that does not go away.

Another form of radiation therapy treatment is call internal radiation or brachytherapy. Although it is an experimental treatment for breast cancer patients, most private insurance programs accept its legitimacy and will pay for the procedure.

Internal radiation therapy, or brachytherapy, involves implanting tiny catheters (plastic hoses) into the flesh at the site of the tumor. Then a radioactive material called Iridium-192 is placed into the catheters and inserted into the desired location in the body. Nine or ten times over a one week period, the catheters are connected to a high-dose-rate brachytherapy machine for internal radiation treatment. The treatments are short and pain-free. The advantage of this therapy is that it lasts only a week because the dose is so high. Also there are less side effects like skin rashes and swelling. This treatment is in clinical trials and is not yet a standard treatment for breast cancer, although it is used to treat other forms of cancer.

Radiation therapy is an important tool in the fight against cancer because it is used to lessen the chance of the cancer recurring. Other than the mentioned side-effects, a course of radiation therapy must be considered if a patient is planning on reconstructive surgery. The radiation treatment has a negative affect on skin elasticity and can make tissue expansion techniques difficult. Most patients are advised to wait until after radiation therapy is complete before getting reconstructive surgery in order to avoid negative reactions in implants.

Some clinical trails have disputed the efficacy of radiation therapy, with claims that the treatment does not significantly affect the survival rate of cancer patients. However, a patient should seek out different opinions on this therapy and all other therapies before deciding which is the best choice of treatment.

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