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Targeting Cancer: What happens during radiation therapy for breast cancer?

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Retired teacher Debbie Roberts-Sorg is a crafter. She spends her time scrapbooking, sewing and, most recently, painting and card making. She appreciates these creative outlets even more since being diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2016. The tumor, classified as invasive ductile carcinoma, was detected during a routine mammogram.

“My mother actually had breast cancer, so I’m very diligent about doing my yearly exams,” she says.

Debbie’s cancer was caught early. She underwent surgery to remove the lump, then radiation therapy followed.

“Radiation treatment is much more elaborate than it was 20 years ago,” says Willamette Valley Cancer Institute radiation oncologist Dr. Emily Dunn, who treated Debbie after her surgery.

Dr. Dunn says advances in technology, particularly in the last decade, have made radiation therapy more precise and individualized to each patient’s anatomy.

“For instance, we used to use X-rays to create a radiation plan and now we use a CT scan, which gives a three-dimensional view of the treatment area, allowing us to take into account not only how much radiation is going to the target area—the breast and possibly the surrounding lymph nodes—but also to the area we don’t want to target, including the heart and the lungs.”

How is radiation administered?

Doctors use two types of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer:

• External radiation therapy: This is the most common type of radiation therapy used for breast cancer. A machine is used to aim high-energy rays (or beams) from outside the body into the tumor. Treatments are usually given 5 days a week for 5 to 6 weeks.

• Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy): For patients who qualify for this treatment, a radioactive implant, called a seed, is put inside the body in or near the tumor. Getting the implant placed is usually a painless procedure. This “inside out” type of radiation therapy provides a higher dose of radiation in a smaller area than might be possible with external radiation treatment, harming as few normal cells as possible.

“Patients often ask if the radiation hurts, and it doesn’t. What we’re treating you with is high-powered X-rays,” Dr. Dunn says. “You’re not going to feel the radiation treatment. You’ll hear the machine click on and off. You’ll notice you’re the only person in the room receiving treatment, but we can see you and hear you on our private screens and make sure everything is going well.”

“It wasn’t that bad, it really wasn’t,” Debbie says. “You just lay on the table for a short time during the procedure. For me, it wasn’t even 5 minutes and I was done.”

As with most cancer treatments, radiation therapy can have side effects, which vary from patient to patient. Debbie experienced discomfort under her armpit and fatigue near the end of her six-week course of treatment. Some patients may experience mild or intense skin irritation, similar to a sunburn.

Empowering other breast cancer survivors

Since her diagnosis, Debbie and her husband have made it a point to slow down, taking time to fully appreciate life. Early detection caught her cancer early, so she encourages other women to get their annual screenings, and to ask questions if something doesn’t feel right.

“That’s the biggest thing I want to say: Ask, ask, ask. And be your best advocate.”

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