Are you looking for information on the side effects of radiation for breast cancer? I received five weeks (25 treatments) of radiation therapy after completing chemo in the spring of 2019.
The side effects of cancer treatments are so different for everyone, but I found radiation to be MUCH easier than my chemo treatments.
In this post, I will describe my experience with radiation therapy including tips and side effects.
As always, please keep in mind that I am not a doctor. The information stated in this post is merely my personal experiences with treatment for breast cancer.
- Breast Cancer Treatment Timeline
- First Radiation Oncology Appointment
- Deflating Tissue Expanders
- Preventing Heart and Lung Damage
- What can I expect during treatment?
- Burns and Other Side Effects
- Radiation vs Chemo
Breast Cancer Treatment Timeline
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2018. After having a bilateral mastectomy, I started six months of chemotherapy.
My medical oncologist wanted me to wait a few weeks before starting radiation to give my body a chance to heal a bit from the chemo.
I ended up having about a month between the end of chemo and the start of radiation. So, my family and I decided to spend a week at the beach during this break!
Summer was approaching, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a normal summer for me. My skin would need to stay covered during radiation therapy, and I was supposed to stay out of the sun.
If you are looking for a good time to plan a getaway during treatment, this time between chemo and radiation worked out really well for me!
I then began radiation in late spring and completed it at the beginning of July.
First Radiation Oncology Appointment
At my very first appointment with the radiation oncologist, my doctor wanted to do a physical exam of my chest to see what she was working with.
I had undergone a bilateral mastectomy about eight months prior where I had tissue expanders placed in each breast to stretch my skin. These tissue expanders were not only incredibly uncomfortable, they were also ridiculously large.
I have always been petite and fairly flat chested. But my plastic surgeon wanted to make sure he would have enough skin to work with when he did my actual implants.
So, he inflated my expanders to a much larger size than I was used to. If you have tissue expanders you will know that they don’t sag or move at all. They are like Barbie doll boobs. They’re hard and very perky!
So, I had been living with these things for months and commenting to my husband about how silly they looked. He would always assure me that they looked fine though.
My plastic surgeon and my breast surgeon (both males) had examined me and seen the ridiculousness of my chest as well. Neither of them ever commented and always kept a straight, professional face during my exams.
So, it got to the point where I thought maybe it was just me who thought my boobs looked outrageous. Well, my radiation oncologist is a female. When I took off my shirt at that first appointment and she saw my chest, she burst out laughing!
She agreed that my boobs looked hysterical and even said that they were so perky and large that they were going to interfere with the radiation beams! So, my radiation oncologist called over to my plastic surgeon’s office and told him to remove more than half of what he had put in. Whew!
I would like to note that I adore my plastic surgeon regardless of my giant boobs. I know that he is thinking about the end results, and that the tissue expanders are just a (uncomfortable) means to an end.
So, I trust him completely in his expertise at inflating my boobs. However, I just wanted someone to recognize the fact that they looked completely absurd!
Deflating Tissue Expanders
My plastic surgeon’s office is located right across the street from the radiation oncology office, so I was able to go straight over there to have my tissue expanders deflated.
My plastic surgeon took out about half of the cc’s he had originally put in each breast. While he was doing that, his nurse stood over me with a really sympathetic look on her face.
She started talking about breast cancer patients, all of the physical things we go through, and how it must be so hard. I thought she was just being nice and making small talk, but then I looked in the mirror.
I don’t even know how to describe what my boobs looked like. After being deflated, my breasts were sunken in rather than poking out. The skin on them was now folded in places all over.
I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. I wanted to send a picture of them to all of my friends, but my husband told me to grow up. Ha!I couldn’t wait to show the females at radiation because I knew they would get it.
My radiation oncologist came into the room, looked at the pitiful state of my chest, and apologized to me for making them even worse! My radiation doctor ended up moving mid-way through my treatments, and I really missed her. I have learned that I really like the candid doctors who will laugh with/at me!
Preventing Heart and Lung Damage
After my breasts were a decent size, one of the radiation therapists made my markings. I laid on my back on the big radiation machine. I had to reach both hands above my head and hold on to handle bar type things.
Since my cancer was in my left breast, my doctors were concerned about my heart being radiated. They had me do deep breathing exercises where I held my breath for different lengths of time.
The longest I ever had to hold it was during this CT scan appointment. The actual radiation sessions went much faster. The therapist used a sharpie marker to make crosses on my chest and abdomen. I was not supposed to wash these off for the entire five weeks.
Some of them did fade, but the therapists would freshen them up at my appointments. During these five weeks, I made sure to wear shirts that had high collars. Otherwise, you could see a big green “x” near my collarbone.
What can I expect during treatment?
I went to radiation therapy every day (Monday-Friday) for five weeks. It was a really simple and fast process. I arrived each day around 9:00 in the morning and went straight back to the changing rooms. I had to wear a gown from the waist up.
They also made me take off my wig and hat during my sessions. I was a bit overcome with emotion during my first treatment. You lay on the machine in a room by yourself. I felt really exposed with my arms above my head, my breasts out in the open, and my head coverings removed.
My mind couldn’t help but wander since there was nothing else I could really do. They played music into the room, so I eventually tried to just focus on that.
During the treatments, I laid perfectly still and held my breath or breathed whenever the therapists asked over the intercom. The machine moved to different spots over my body. I didn’t feel any pain or anything during this process.
My left arm did get pretty numb a few times. This is the arm where four lymph nodes had been removed. My circulation wasn’t the greatest in this arm so it fell asleep really easily. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have way more than four nodes removed!
The numbness got a bit worse with radiation treatment, but it is normal now that it’s over. So, if you are dealing with a tight arm, know that there is an end in sight! I ended up laying on the machine for about fifteen minutes during each session. Then, I was able to get dressed and leave. So, I was usually only there for about thirty minutes total.
I met with my radiation oncologist once a week during my five week radiation schedule. My doctor would check my skin and talk to me about side effects to make sure I was doing okay.
Burns and Other Side Effects
I try not to think about the long term side effects of the radiation; although, they are always in the back of my mind.
I did experiences a few side effects during radiation treatment though. Thankfully, they all went away within three weeks of treatment ending.
I mentioned this above, but the circulation in my left arm was worse during radiation therapy. My arm fell asleep really easily when I laid down and raised it above my head. It was also harder to do certain movements with this arm during that time.
The skin on my breasts didn’t really get that red; however my upper chest looked really sunburned starting about two weeks into treatment. Also, my neck and upper back (just over the treated shoulder) got really red. My doctor prescribed a steroid cream to rub on my skin. She also had me spray it with green tea. I found that Aquafor worked really well too. Just know that the steroid cream and Aquafor tend to stain clothing.
This was the most annoying side effect for me!! My skin, particularly my upper back, itched so badly off and on every day.
I’m going to be honest here and say that I don’t really know if radiation caused me to feel tired. I have a one year old who is a terrible sleeper so I was tired long before radiation started. Ha!
Radiation vs Chemo
If you are wondering how chemotherapy and radiation compare, I thought radiation was a breeze!
The sunburn and the itchy skin weren’t fun. However, each appointment was super fast, and I felt fine throughout the whole five weeks.
I was still able to take care of my kids and live my regular life, which was not the case with chemo.
In fact, on my last day of treatment, my dad asked me which was more exciting: the last radiation treatment or the last day of school before summer break- (I used to teach elementary school.).
I jokingly told him that nothing beats the last day of school! After really thinking about it though, radiation wasn’t that bad, so summer break probably was a bigger relief!
Overall, I’m thankful that my radiation oncologist is so optimistic that the radiation treatment will help prevent my cancer from returning.
I’m hopeful that the benefits of radiation for breast cancer will far exceed any negative side effects that I did experience or may experience in the future.
If you or a friend are facing treatment for breast cancer, check out my list of items I found super useful during my journey!
What side effects did you have while receiving radiation therapy? And how did you feel it compared to chemo?
Comment below and let me know!