What is 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 when breast cancer has spread to the bones or to the brain.

Radiotherapy is usually given as a series of short, daily treatments, Monday–Friday, in the radiotherapy department. The treatment will only take a few minutes. You may need only one or a few sessions of treatment. Radiotherapy isn’t painful, but the position you have to lie in during the treatment may be uncomfortable. Taking a painkiller half an hour before your radiotherapy may help.

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

When you have radiotherapy to improve symptoms, the side effects are not usually too troublesome.

Radiotherapy can make you feel tired. This sometimes lasts for a few weeks after treatment finishes. Other side effects depend on the area of your body being treated and how much radiotherapy you have.

Always tell your nurse or radiographer about any side effects. There are usually ways in which they can be treated or managed. Side effects stop or improve gradually when treatment finishes.

Radiotherapy to the bones

Radiotherapy can shrink a secondary cancer in the bones, strengthen the bone and reduce pain. It may take three to four weeks before it works so you need to carry on taking painkillers during this time.

Feeling very tired is a common side effect. This should gradually improve a few weeks after treatment finishes. Try to pace yourself and get as much rest as you need. It helps to balance this with some gentle exercise, such as short walks, if possible.

You may feel sick if the area treated is close to your tummy, for example the ribs or spine. Your doctor can prescribe anti-sickness drugs to control any sickness.

Spinal cord compression

Doctors also use a short course of radiotherapy to the spine when a tumour is close to or pressing on the spinal cord. This is called spinal cord compression.

It can cause different symptoms including pain around the chest and difficulty walking. Spinal cord compression is not common but needs to be treated quickly to prevent permanent damage to the nerves.

Radiotherapy to the brain

Radiotherapy helps to shrink a secondary cancer in the brain and improve the symptoms. You may have up to two weeks of treatment.

It causes some hair loss but this is usually temporary. Your hair should start to grow back within a few months after the treatment has finished. The skin on your scalp may also become dry and feel irritated. Your nurse or radiographer will give you advice on looking after the skin.

You may feel very sleepy or drowsy for a few weeks. Tiredness can continue for weeks or months after treatment. Get plenty rest but try to take regular short walks to help give you more energy.

Radiotherapy to the brain may make you feel sick or be sick. Your doctor can prescribe anti-sickness tablets or steroids to control this.

Occasionally a type of radiotherapy called stereotactic radiotherapy is used to treat small brain tumours. But it is only available in some specialist hospitals and isn’t suitable for everyone. It delivers high doses of radiation accurately targeted to the tumour causing less damage to surrounding tissue.

Back to Radiotherapy explained

Before your radiotherapy

Before you start radiotherapy, your team will explain what your treatment involves and how it may affect you.

Your radiotherapy team

You will meet many different specialists from your radiotherapy team. You may see them before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.