Radiation therapy is an effective treatment option in the fight against breast cancer. Cancer cells that remain in the breast after surgery can potentially cause significant harm, and radiation therapy can effectively destroy those cells. Cancer cells are less organized than healthy cells, and that makes it hard for cancer cells to repair the damage caused by radiation therapy. According to Breastcancer.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing up-to-date information about breast cancer, there are three main types of radiation:
• External radiation: The most common type of radiation, external radiation therapy employs a linear accelerator that aims a beam of high-energy radiation at cancer-affected areas. Treatment with external radiation is extensive, lasting as long as seven weeks, during which radiation is administered on an outpatient basis five times per week.
• Internal radiation: Internal radiation therapy is being studied for use after a lumpectomy, a surgical procedure in which a lump is removed from the breast, often before the cancer has spread to other areas. Internal radiation typically involves the use of seeds, which are small pieces of radioactive material placed in the area where the cancer was prior to the lumpectomy procedure being performed. These seeds work by emitting radiation into the surrounding tissue, which is an area that is at great risk of recurrence. Multiple small tubes or catheters are typically used to deliver internal radiation doses.
• Intraoperative radiation: Intraoperative radiation is unique from other forms of radiation in that it is administered during cancer surgery after the cancer has been removed. The underlying breast tissue is exposed during the procedure, when a single, high dose of radiation is directed at the area where the cancer was found. There are two ways to administer intraoperative radiation therapy, neither of which typically takes more than 10 minutes. Debate regarding intraoperative radiation therapy persists, and research is ongoing as to who are the ideal candidates for this relatively new type of treatment.