What happens during radiation therapy depends on whether you get external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) or internal radiation therapy, which is also called brachytherapy. EBRT is the more common way to have radiation therapy for breast cancer. This is how it works.
After enough time has gone by for your surgery wound to heal (about two to three weeks), a team of radiation specialists will carefully figure out where to focus the radiation. Then they will mark your body with ink so that they know exactly where to aim the beam of radiation. Usually it's aimed at the whole breast. Sometimes it has to be aimed under your arm and at the rest of your chest, too. It depends on how advanced your cancer is. If you need to lie in an awkward position, the radiologist may make a mold of your body, which can be used to keep you from moving around during the treatment.
The treatment itself is like having a regular X-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The treatment lasts only a few minutes and is painless. Some studies have shown that shorter, more frequent (once every four to six hours) bursts of radiation work better on smaller tumors. Typically, you'll have to go for radiation five days a week for about six weeks. If you have the more frequent type of radiation, you may have to go to the hospital twice a day until the treatment is over. If you're having chemotherapy after your surgery, you may decide to wait until the end of chemotherapy treatments to begin your radiation treatments.
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