Possible late effects of breast cancer treatment on the lungs
Radiotherapy is carefully planned and ways of giving it have improved over the years. Very rarely though, radiotherapy can affect the lungs and cause problems later on.
Sometimes, radiotherapy can affect the cells lining the lungs, causing a hardening and thickening (fibrosis) of the tissue. This can result in problems with breathlessness. This is a late effect of radiotherapy and can appear months or years after treatment.
If you already have a chest problem, such as asthma, or if you smoke, the symptoms can be worse.
A short-term side effect that people may get 1-3 months after radiotherapy is inflammation of the lung (radiation pneumonitis). This causes symptoms such as breathlessness, a dry cough or chest pain. However, the condition usually improves so the symptoms are often temporary.
You should always see your doctor for a check-up if you develop new symptoms.
Treatment for lung problems
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Treatment will depend on what’s wrong with your lungs and may simply involve advice on giving up smoking and keeping to a healthy weight. Being overweight will make problems with breathlessness worse.
You may be given inhalers that contain drugs to help open up the airways (bronchodilators). Steroids can be given as tablets or inhalers to reduce inflammation. If you have an infection in the lung, you’ll be given antibiotics.
What you can do
If you smoke, the most important thing you can do is to stop and avoid being exposed to other people’s smoke (passive smoking). Stopping smoking has lots of benefits, including reducing your risk of getting heart disease. If you want to stop smoking, your GP or local NHS stop smoking clinic can give you more advice.
Keeping to a healthy weight will improve breathing problems. You can read more about this in our section on weight. You can also ask to be referred to a physiotherapist, who can teach you deep breathing exercises and give you advice on exercise. This can help you to breathe better and improve breathlessness.