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Some men with breast cancer will need radiation, often in addition to other treatments. The recommendations for radiation therapy in men with breast cancer is largely taken from those for female breast cancer because not enough studies have been done in men. The need for radiation depends on what type of surgery you had or whether your cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or somewhere else in your body. Tumors that are large or involve the skin might also need radiation. You could have just one type of radiation, or a combination of different types.
Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) or particles that destroy cancer cells. The most common type of radiation therapy for men with breast cancer is called external beam radiation. A machine focuses the radiation on the area affected by the cancer.
Not all men with breast cancer need radiation therapy, but it may be used in several situations:
Which areas need radiation depends on whether you had a mastectomy or breast-conserving surgery (BCS) and whether or not the cancer has reached nearby lymph nodes.
If you will need external radiation therapy after surgery, it is usually not started until your surgery site has healed, which is often a month or longer. If you are getting chemotherapy as well, radiation treatments are usually delayed until chemotherapy is complete.
Breast radiation is most often given 5 days a week (Monday thru Friday) for about 6 to 7 weeks.
Before your treatment starts, the radiation team will carefully figure out the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. They will make some ink marks or small tattoos on your skin to focus the radiation on the right area. Check with your health care team whether the marks they use will be permanent.
External radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time—getting you into place for treatment—usually takes longer.
The main short-term side effects of external beam radiation therapy to the breast are:
Your health care team may advise you to avoid exposing the treated skin to the sun because it could make the skin changes worse. Most skin changes get better within a few months. Changes to the breast tissue usually go away in 6 to 12 months, but it can take longer.
External beam radiation therapy can also cause side effects later on:
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Jardell P, Vignot S, Cutuli B, et al. Should Adjuvant Radiation Therapy Be Systematically Proposed for Male Breast Cancer? A Systematic Review. Anticancer Research. 2018 (38): 23-31.
Khan A and Haffty BG. Chapter 42: Postmastectomy Radiation Therapy. In: Harris JR, Lippman ME, Morrow M, Osborne CK, eds. Diseases of the Breast. 5th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health; 2014.
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Last Revised: April 27, 2018