Radiation Side Effects for Breast Cancer

In this video, we review both common and uncommon side effects of radiation for breast cancer.

Read the full video transcript below:

In this video, we'll review the common short-term side effects, possible long-term side effects, and uncommon side effects of radiation for breast cancer. We'll also review some special instructions.

In terms of common short-term side effects, almost all women experience some fatigue with radiation for breast cancer. Starting about the second or third week of treatment, Women typically develop a skin reaction to radiation. Most women described this as a sunburn-like reaction. 

It’s possible to experience hair loss, especially inside the radiation field, which sometimes extends up into the armpit. Some women experience swelling in the breast, and breast, or chest discomfort. After surgery and sometimes during radiation, women may experience nerve pain, commonly called Zinger.

Less common but possible long-term side effects of radiation for breast cancer include subtle changes in breast size, typically smaller after the formation of scar tissue, chronic swelling or lymphedema, either in the breast or the arm, and fibrosis or scar tissue formation in the skin or breast tissue, which can make the area feel thicker and more dense than before treatment.

Very uncommon complications from radiation for breast cancer include inflammation of the lung, called radiation pneumonitis, cardiac disease, or heart injury, which is thankfully much less common with modern techniques of radiation therapy, chest wall injury causing pain or even rib fracture, which again is much less common with modern techniques of radiation therapy, and nerve injury called brachial plexopathy.

There is a very remote, less than 1% risk of developing another cancer because of radiation many years after treatment. 

We do recommend some special instructions for all women undergoing radiation for breast cancer. We ask that patients use aluminum-free deodorant for the duration of therapy, avoid shaving in the underarms, and notify your doctor or nurse if you develop skin irritation.

This is not medical advice. Talk to your doctor before making a medical decision.