Breast cancer accounts for over 30% of cancers diagnosed among women, with about 3,900 new cases each year in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
At Minneapolis Radiation Oncology, we understand how daunting a breast cancer diagnosis can be. Since 1981, we’ve established a reputation as trusted allies in the fight against cancer. Today, Minneapolis Radiation Oncology is the Twin Cities’ leading provider of advanced radiation therapy for cancer.
We bring advanced radiation therapy close to home, with 11 locations across the Twin Cities, Brainerd Lakes Area, and Western Wisconsin. Count on the cancer specialists at MRO to be here for you, with care, precision, and compassion.
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women, after skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be approximately 270,000 new cases diagnosed each year, mostly in women (but it can also develop in men).
What is breast cancer?
Cancer develops when old, damaged, or abnormal cells survive, and new abnormal cells form in an uncontrolled way. These new cells continue to mutate, divide, and form tumors. Then, treatment is required. There are many types of breast cancer; each has different symptoms, risk factors, and treatment plans. But with improvements in early detection and treatment, the American Cancer Society reports that deaths from breast cancer declined 40% from 1989 to 2016.
There are generally two types of breast cancer: invasive and noninvasive.
Invasive (infiltrating) breast cancer
Cancerous cells grow within the breast and can spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lymph nodes. Nearly 80 percent of invasive breast cancer is invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), which begins in the milk ducts and spreads to the surrounding fatty tissue.
Noninvasive (in situ) breast cancer:
When the cancer cells remain within the ductal tissue of the breast, without spreading to surrounding breast tissue, or elsewhere in the body, it’s called noninvasive breast cancer. Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is the most common type.
The prognosis is good for breast cancer patients.
“Often the first question is: What is radiation? To most people, it’s an unfamiliar branch of medicine. I find it really rewarding to describe to patients the reason focused radiation is a successful tool used to kill off cancer cells allowing the body to heal.”
Dr. Daniel Wattson, MRO | Fairview Southdale
Radiation technology is proven effective
At MRO, we use radiation, or radiotherapy, to destroy cancer cells with high doses of radiation. We use a machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC) to direct precise doses of radiation at cancer cells, which are more susceptible to radiation than healthy cells. Like an x-ray, radiation therapy is painless. There’s no fear of becoming radioactive during or after treatment.
Everyone’s journey is different. But it’s important to understand that you are not alone. At MRO, our skilled, compassionate care team will help guide you through every stage.
“When patients come in for treatment, they want to know what’s going on, they have the fear of the unknown. We guide patients step-by-step through their treatment, asking if they have any questions, and assuring them they are not alone.”
Becky Klein, Radiation Therapist, MRO | Mercy
Why choose radiation therapy for breast cancer?
Generally, there are three types of cases where radiation therapy is recommended.
- After a lumpectomy. If you have a lumpectomy, the tumor and a small amount of surrounding breast tissue are removed. But there is a risk of residual cancer cells in the tissue that remains. Therefore, after surgery, radiation therapy can lower the risk of cancer recurrence.
- After mastectomy. A mastectomy may be necessary in cases where cancer is present in several areas of the breast, if tumors are large, or in case of specific genetic mutations. Several factors may indicate an increased risk of cancer recurrence and necessitate post-operative radiation: a tumor larger than 2 inches (5 centimeters), lymph nodes testing positive for cancer – which may indicate the cancer has spread – or the margins on breast tissue which was removed showing signs of cancer.
- For managing metastatic breast cancer. If breast cancer has spread to other parts of your body (metastasized) causing pain or other symptoms, MRO uses radiation treatment to shrink the tumor and ease that symptom.
“Cancer treatment is a fight. There are choices that patients have in fighting breast cancer, and radiation has proven to be an excellent choice in targeting breast cancer tumors with precision and accuracy.”
Dr. Nathan Hilton | MRO Brainerd
Treating left breast cancer requires special care
Radiation treatments on the left side of the chest can lead to heart issues years after radiation therapy. In order to protect your heart from related issues or after-effects, your MRO team uses a linear accelerator equipped with AlignRT®, a three-dimensional video-based technology, to ensure precise targeting of cancer cells and minimize the radiation dose to the heart.
Your treatment is a team effort
When you talk with your doctor about treatment options, ask if MRO is the right choice for you. We’ll start with a consultation appointment lasting one or two hours. During that time you’ll meet with a radiation oncologist.
Once the radiation oncologist has examined you, he or she will discuss treatment options and the pros and cons of radiation treatment for you. A radiation therapy nurse will also be there to help explain treatment, discuss how sessions are scheduled, and provide information on how to take care of yourself during treatment.
Since radiotherapy for breast cancer requires utmost precision, you’ll also go through a simulation at the MRO Therapy Center. Using state-of-the-art imaging technologies such as MRI, CT, and PET, your care team will position you as you would be for treatment and take measurements to build a targeted treatment plan. With this image mapping as a guide, your MRO care team can pinpoint radiation doses down to the millimeter for the best possible outcome.
For questions to ask your provider see our FAQ page.
“I needed to feel confident I had the ‘A-Team’ fighting for me. I did lots of research, asking questions, and being more determined than my cancer. My care team at Minneapolis Radiation Oncology – Susan, Dani, Emily – the entire team was great.”
Jody | Breast cancer survivor
At least half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation, and the cure rate is growing every day. In 2016, more than three million cancer survivors were treated with radiation; those with breast cancer made up the largest group at 40%.
We make treatment as easy and convenient as possible, so you can get back to living your life.
Your own treatment schedule will be specifically tailored to you, at the MRO clinic that is most convenient for you. Treatment will depend on the type of tumor you have, where it’s located, and what type of technology we’ll be using. You’ll also meet with your physician each week to monitor progress and touch base with your nurse, who can answer any questions you may have.
Managing side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer
Like treatments for any serious disease, there are risks and side effects involved with radiation therapy. Most go away in the weeks or months after treatment, while others may not even appear until years later. Your oncologist will not advise you to have any treatment unless the potential benefits (controlling cancer or relieving symptoms) are greater than the known risks.
During your breast cancer radiation treatment, you may experience one or more of the following side effects. If you experience these or other side effects, contact your MRO care team for suggestions on how best to minimize them.
Skin Irritation and/or swelling
During and just after radiation treatment, your breast(s) may be sore. Your skin may also feel rough, sunburnt, swollen, dry, blistered, or itchy. You may even notice a change in skin sensation. When targeted radiation beams pass through healthy skin layers, it can temporarily cause irritation.
You may feel tired during radiation treatment since your body is using a lot of energy to heal itself. Daily trips for treatment and illness-related stress can also contribute to fatigue.
“The team at MRO was great. They really know what they’re doing. I have so much confidence in them as far as what they do from a medical standpoint. But really, they want to know about me as a person too. They want to know every day that I am doing okay. Not just physically, but just everything about me. They really looked after me.”
Mary | Breast cancer survivor
Rare long-term effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer
Most side effects clear up quickly after radiation treatment, but there are rare long-term effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer, which may appear months, or even years, later. Most of these chronic side effects have been greatly reduced with modern radiation therapy techniques.
- Lymphedema – Damage or removal of lymph nodes from surgery and/or radiation treatment can cause lymphedema, a blockage that prevents lymph fluid from draining and causes swelling. During breast cancer treatment, it’s often seen in patients’ arms. The earlier lymphedema is treated, the better.
- Potential breast changes – Some women who have had radiation therapy may have challenges
breastfeeding and may find their breast is smaller and firmer.
- Lung changes – A small portion of the lung just under the breast may develop some scarring, leading to radiation pneumonitis, a lung inflammation which causes shortness of breath, dry cough, and a low-grade fever. These after-effects are rare with today’s treatment techniques. Medication helps relieve symptoms, and it often goes away with time.
- Change in skin color and thickness – Radiation may lead to a permanent change in skin color, specifically around any scars and the locations the radiation was directed. It may also cause small blood vessels to appear more prominently.
- Shoulder and/or rib discomfort – Some patients may experience decreased range of motion after treatment, along with shoulder discomfort. In rare cases, radiation may weaken the rib cage near the treatment area, and rib fractures can occur.
- Nerve damage – A very small percentage of patients may experience brachial plexopathy – tingling, pain, and weakness in your hand or arm – caused by damage to the area where nerves branch from the spinal cord into your arms.
“When I first meet patients, there are a lot of questions about their cancer. ‘What is radiation treatment?’ What could the outcomes be? Empowering patients with answers to their questions, so they know exactly what they are facing and that we are treating aggressively to maximize their best possible outcome turns fear into confidence.”
Dr. Jeffrey Herman, MRO | Unity
Since each cancer is different, your treatment schedule is specifically tailored to you. Typically, treatments are five days a week, Monday through Friday, lasting between 5-30 minutes. MRO has 11 locations across the Twin Cities, Brainerd, and Western Wisconsin, so it’s easy to find treatment near you.
How to care for yourself during treatment
During treatment, there are things you can do to help your body stay strong:
- Get plenty of rest; don’t push yourself too hard.
- Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids.
- Treat your skin in the treatment area with care. Clean with warm water and mild soap, avoid hot or cold packs, and check with your doctor before using lotions or ointments.
- Talk to your doctor about any medications or supplements you are taking to make sure they are safe to use during radiation.
- Follow your doctor’s orders and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Find a support group or seek out help to cope with the stress of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.
“Being a breast cancer survivor has helped me be a better radiation therapist and a source of tips for patients in managing side effects. I’ve learned gratitude from my patients and from my own journey. I don’t take anything for granted, I don’t procrastinate on going for my goals anymore, and I’m thankful every day.”
Julie | MRO Radiation Therapist and cancer survivor
Life after treatment
Once your treatment is complete, you’ll have follow-up appointments to check the results of treatment and monitor your health over the coming months.
It’s typical to need extra rest. So, listen to your body – nap when you need to– and get as much sleep at night as you can. Be gentle with your skin in the treatment area. Any skin irritation should go away in several weeks.
If you continue to have pain after radiation therapy, you can use an over-the-counter pain medicine. Avoid using a heating pad or warm compress on any area treated by radiation. If you continue to have severe pain, contact your MRO team and ask about medications or other methods of relief.
For more information, visit our resources page.