Breast Radiation Side Effects: Understanding the Impact

Breast radiation side effects are critical considerations when treating breast cancer. Targeted radiotherapy is an invaluable tool for eradicating deadly cancer cells, but it comes at a physical cost. It can also damage healthy adjacent tissues and adversely affect the body as a whole. 

A breast cancer diagnosis is a profoundly life-altering moment. Patients experience fear, uncertainty, and emotional upheaval. A well-structured radiotherapy treatment plan offers an increased chance of survival. Minimizing concomitant harm is vital to achieving a good outcome and preserving quality of life. In this article, Barrier Technologies® describes the potential side effects of breast radiation and strategies to mitigate them. 


How Long Do the Side Effects of Radiation Last?

Breast cancer radiation therapy side effects can vary significantly in severity and duration. Variable factors include the mode of radiotherapy, equipment used, exposure dose, tumor size, and location, and a patient’s overall health. Fortunately, continuous advancements in techniques and technology have reduced side effects for many patients.

Here’s a broad guideline for how long radiotherapy side effects may last:

  • Short-Term Side Effects: Typically occur during or immediately after treatment and resolve or improve within weeks.
  • Longer-Term Side Effects: Persist for weeks or months after treatment.
  • Late-Onset Side Effects: Arise months or even years later and can be intractable or permanent. 


Common Breast Radiation Side Effects

Radiotherapy effectively destroys cancer cells, particularly when integrated into a multi-modal approach alongside other treatment strategies such as surgery, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. Nevertheless, radiation treatment can cause extensive and unpleasant repercussions. For instance, in a study involving 60 women who underwent postoperative radiotherapy, all these patients experienced some form of skin reaction.

The following table outlines the prevalent side effects of breast cancer radiation therapy:


Common Radiation Therapy Side Effects When Treating Breast Cancer
Ⅰ. Short-Term Side Effects:

  • The extent of the condition varies from person to person.
  • Ongoing management is crucial for improving patient comfort and outcomes.
#1. Skin Changes – The treated area looks red or sunburnt.
– Skin can become dry, itchy, and possibly peel.
#2. Fatigue – Most patients indicate fatigue during or after treatment.
– May be cumulative with each dose.
#3. Inflammation – The breast tissue is sensitive, swollen, or tender.
– Painful, infected, and weeping sores can develop.
#4. Chest Discomfort – Patients experience mild chest pain or tightness.
– More common when the chest wall is irradiated.
#5. Lymphedema – The arm or hand on the treated side swells.
– Occurs when lymph nodes in the armpit are in the target area.
#6. Nausea and Vomiting – Occurs in the majority of radiation patients.
– More common in left-sided breast cancer treatment.
#7. Hair Changes – Hair might become thinner or change texture.
– Armpit hair loss (and chest hair in male patients) is possible.
#8. Dysphagia – Occurs with radiation directed near the throat or esophagus.
– Causes difficulty swallowing or speaking or a sore throat.
Ⅱ. Long-Term Changes to the Breast:

  • Radiation involves a tradeoff to boost survival and reduce recurrence.
  • It is difficult to predict if treatment will induce long-term changes.
#1. Physical Appearance – Variations include decreased size and altered shape.
– Surface deformations are more common in larger breasts.
#2. Radiation Fibrosis – Fibrin protein buildup causes sclerosis in the breast tissue.
– This can cause firmness, thickening, or hardening.
#3. Skin Changes – Hyperpigmentation and discoloration can be permanent.
– Persistent tiny broken veins may appear.
#4. Breast Pain – Aches and sharp pains can persist for years.
– Pain can worsen over time if there is nerve damage.
Ⅲ. Side Effects in Surrounding Areas:

  • Proximal organs and structures may be damaged inadvertently by radiotherapy.
  • This can cause adjunctive health complications unrelated to the primary cancer.
#1. Lung Damage – Damage to cells lining the lungs can cause fibrosis.
– Inflammation can result in radiation pneumonitis.
#2. Heart Damage – Increased risk of arrhythmias and cardiovascular diseases.
– More common after left-sided breast cancer treatment.
#3. Rib Fractures – Weakened ribs can fracture spontaneously.
– Postmenopausal women are at increased risk.
#4. Neuropathy – Results from damage to the brachial plexus nerve bundle.
– Upper extremity weakness is progressive and irreversible.



How Are These Side Effects of Radiation Therapy Treated?

Managing the side effects of breast radiation therapy depends on the specific symptoms experienced by an individual patient. We list a variety of approaches below:

  • Topical Creams: Topical hydrocortisone and aloe vera relieve skin irritation and redness.
  • Cooling Techniques: Cold compresses and cooling gels reduce skin discomfort and inflammation.
  • Pain Medications: Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) manage mild to moderate pain.
  • Prescription Medications: Stronger pain medications and corticosteroid creams manage more severe discomfort.
  • Wound Care: Sterile dressings and antibiotic ointments treat broken skin and inflammation.
  • Moisturizers: Fragrance-free moisturizing lotions soothe excessive dryness and peeling.
  • Avoiding Irritants: Prevent exposure of the irradiated area to direct sunlight, hot water, and harsh soaps.
  • Lymphedema Treatment: Compression garments, lymphatic massage, and physical therapy reduce swelling and direct lymph flow.
  • Nutrition and Hydration: A healthy diet and sufficient water intake promote healing.
  • Emotional Support: Counseling assists the emotional aspects of radiotherapy.


What Radiation Protection Products Block Breast Radiation Side Effects?

Barrier Technologies supplies radiation protection products to reduce the side effects of breast radiation. Our superior products shield healthy tissues from radiation exposure, mitigating potential adverse effects.

  1. Lead Aprons: Lead (and lead-free) aprons are indispensable to protect healthcare workers and patients from radiation exposure. They are available in several styles in 0.35 or 0.5 mm lead equivalence (LE). We also provide essential accessories such as thyroid collars, gloves, and caps.
  2. Leaded Eyewear: Our specially designed radiation-protective glasses ensure remarkable durability and comfort. The 0.75mm LE lenses from Corning® Med-X® strategically block harmful rays of scatter radiation while reducing eye fatigue and enhancing vision.
  3. Lead Pads: SecureShield® Multipurpose Pads, with or without fenestration, protect specific body areas during radiation therapy, thus minimizing exposure to surrounding tissues.
  4. Lead Shields and Blankets: Position our adjustable Porta-Shields and Protective Blankets wherever needed to boost personnel and patient defense from scatter radiation.


Contact Barrier Technologies for Optimal Radiation Protection

Remember that October is breast cancer awareness month! For every two minutes it took you to read this article, another person in the USA was diagnosed with breast cancer. Breast radiation side effects are distressing consequences of breast cancer treatment. Every effort is required to minimize discomfort, avoid damage to healthy tissue, and prevent secondary complications.

Barrier Technologies’ technologically advanced products safeguard healthcare practitioners and patients in their care from potentially harmful ionizing radiation. Please browse our extensive catalogs to select the protective devices, garments, and accessories that best suit your needs. Get in touch with us here for expert guidance.