6 Long-Term Radiation Side Effects You Should Know

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Every breast cancer patient has an individualized treatment plan curated by their medical team. This may include surgery like a lumpectomy or mastectomy, hormone therapy, chemo therapy, or radiation (also called radiotherapy).

If your doctor recommends radiation, there is a chance you will experience both short-term and long-term side effects, as with any treatment. But, compared to chemotherapy, radiotherapy is a lot easier to deal with and comes with fewer potential issues.

Radiation can be used on its own or in combination with other treatments or surgeries, and can be used before or after a surgery, depending on the stage of your cancer and your doctors’ recommendations. Despite its many positive attributes though, it is often misunderstood by breast cancer patients. To check out some common misconceptions, read our article here.

The goods news is that radiation only affects a very precise, targeted area, and your doctor will select a dose that will be the most effective without damaging as much healthy tissue as possible. However, sensitivity varies from patient to patient, and there’s no way to accurately predict which patients will have what reactions. Some side affects won’t show up until months or years after your treatment.

If you have a higher dose of radiation, your chances of getting side effects are more likely — but if you get too low of a dose of radiation, it won’t be as effective against the cancer and could leave cancer cells alive.

Here are some long-term side effects to be aware of.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Belish

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Belish

Breast Fibrosis

Fibrosis is a term that means a thickening or scarring of connective tissues, and many women naturally have fibroids and simple cysts in their breasts already — they are a common factor in having “dense breasts.” They do not increase breast cancer risk and are not harmful, though they can make detecting breast cancer more difficult because your breasts may feel lumpy or ropey.

However, breast fibrosis can also be long-term side effect of radiotherapy. You may hear your doctor refer to it as breast fibrosis or glandular atrophy, or radiation fibrosis syndrome (RFS). In this case, breast fibrosis is a direct result of radiation damaging your skin’s elasticity. This can make your breasts feels harder or thicker to the touch, and they may visually appear smaller or shrunken as well.

Experiencing high doses of radiation, undergoing radiation while also undergoing chemotherapy, and having underlying collagen vascular disease can increase your risk of breast fibrosis significantly.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Voyagerix

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Voyagerix

Fibrosis usually develops within the first two years after treatment, but in rare cases, it can crop up as much as ten years later. Your breast may start out feeling inflamed or tender, and then gradually harden.

It can also sometimes be mistaken by patients as a new lump or recurrence of the disease, which can be unnecessarily frightening, so reach out to your doctor if you have any concerns.

The good news is that a recent study showed that a combination of vitamin E and a drug called pentoxifylline (PTX) reduced the risk of breast cancer patients developing fibrosis if they underwent radiation therapy, so talk to your doctor about your options.

Click “NEXT” to learn about more long-term side effects.

C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband and dog.
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