Radiotherapy for secondary breast cancer
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.
It is used to relieve pain and other symptoms, for example, when breast cancer has spread to:
the bones - radiotherapy helps strengthen the bone and reduces pain. It may take 3-4 weeks before it works, so you need to carry on taking painkillers during this time
the brain - radiotherapy helps to shrink a secondary cancer in the brain and improves symptoms.
Radiotherapy is usually given as a series of short, daily treatments, Monday-Friday, in the radiotherapy department. You may need only one or a few sessions of treatment. Radiotherapy isn’t painful, but the position you have to lie in for the few minutes it takes may be uncomfortable. Taking a painkiller half an hour before your radiotherapy may help.
A type of radiotherapy called stereotactic radiotherapy may be used to treat small brain tumours. It delivers high doses of radiation more accurately to the tumour while doing as little harm as possible to surrounding brain tissues. There’s more information about this in our section on radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy doesn’t make you radioactive and it’s perfectly safe to be with other people, including children, after treatment. If you have any questions about radiotherapy, you can ask your doctor or the staff in the radiotherapy department.
Side effects of radiotherapy
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Usually, when radiotherapy is given to improve symptoms, the side effects aren’t too troublesome, especially if you’re only having one or two treatments.
Radiotherapy can make you feel tired and this sometimes lasts for a few weeks after treatment finishes. But the other side effects will depend on the part of your body being treated and how much radiotherapy you’re having.
Radiotherapy to the bones
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Although you’ll feel tired after radiotherapy to the bones, it doesn’t usually cause many side effects. If the area being treated is near the tummy, for example the ribs or the spine, you may feel sick. This can be controlled by taking anti-sickness drugs, which your specialist can prescribe.
Spinal cord compression
This is when a secondary tumour near to or in the spine causes pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. These nerves carry messages between the brain and the body. Spinal cord compression is not common but it’s very important that it is diagnosed quickly.
Some of the common symptoms are:
unexplained back or neck pain – pain may feel like a ‘band’ around the chest or tummy area and sometimes down the arm or leg
numbness, pins and needles in toes, fingers, or over the buttocks
being unsteady on your feet or having difficulty walking problems controlling your bladder, or passing very little or no urine
constipation or problems controlling your bowels.
If you develop any of these symptoms, it’s very important to let your cancer doctor or nurse know immediately. Spinal cord compression needs urgent treatment to prevent permanent damage to the nerves.
An MRI scan is usually done to diagnose it. The most common treatment is a short course of radiotherapy which is started immediately. High doses of dexamethasone (a steroid) are given to help reduce pressure and swelling around the spinal cord. Occasionally treatment with surgery is given.
We have more information on malignant spinal cord compression (MSCC).
Radiotherapy to the brain
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Radiotherapy to the brain can cause hair loss. The hair usually starts to grow back within a few months after the treatment has finished. Sometimes it may not grow back completely.
This treatment can also make you feel very sleepy or drowsy for a few weeks.