Understanding Radiation Therapy for Metastatic Breast Cancer

When cancer cells spread beyond their primary location, the disease is categorized as metastatic, stage IV, or advanced. Metastases refer to specific areas where cancer has spread to, such as bone metastases.

Patients with symptoms of metastases are likely to receive local treatment (treatment that focuses on the cancer area) to help relieve the symptoms and control the disease at that location. Radiation therapy can shrink tumors and control the specific areas where cancer has spread.

The purpose of radiation is to:

  • Minimize the pain
  • Reduce the risk of cancer weakening and breaking bones
  • Reduce bleeding
  • Improve the patient’s breathing by opening up the blocked airways
  • Take the pressure off pressed nerves that are causing pain, weakness or numbness

A patient is given a schedule for metastases and radiation dose depending on;

  • The urgency of their situation (some experience pain or loss of function, while some undergo radiation due to the size and location of their metastases)
  • The previous radiation they had
  • Other scheduled treatments the patient is having

The most common radiation doses used on metastatic breast cancer patients are 3, 000 centiGrays for a period of two weeks or about 3,750 to 4,000 centiGrays over three weeks.

The common places which metastatic breast cancer invades and which can be treated with radiation include;

Spinal cord compression – When cancer puts pressure on your spinal cord, it damages the nerves in the backbone, which connect the brain to the body. This can cause weakness, backbone pain, change in bowel and bladder habits, and even paralysis.

The patient is given steroids to calm the swelling before receiving radiation on the affected area to kill the cancer cells. Sometimes they may undergo surgery to reduce the pressure being exerted around the spinal cord.

Patients with brain metastases need immediate treatment, especially if they experience headaches, nausea, vision changes, numbness, or seizures. They may be given steroids first before getting treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy. Radiation is often aimed at specific nerves or the whole brain.

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