How do radiation and chemotherapy for breast cancer differ?

Shelby A. Terstriep, MD
Radiation is used to treat the area where the breast cancer was removed to try to kill any cancer cell that may have escaped into that area. Its goal is to decrease the chance of the breast cancer coming back in that area. Chemotherapy goes throughout the body to try to kill any cancer cell that may have gone into the lymph system or blood system before it goes to any other organ.
Dr Camille

Cancers are treated via 3 main modalities - Surgery, Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy. Chemotherapy is given via the blood vessels and has the ability to travel everywhere in the body that the blood flows (this can lead to symptoms such as losing hair, numbness of fingertips and toes, nausea, etc.,).

Radiation therapy, unlike chemotherapy, is a local treatment and does not travel everywhere in the body. In breast cancer, the radiation beams are focused only on the treated breast and symptoms are localized to the area in the path of the radiation beams. Early Symptoms (acute) are usually described as a modest sun burn a few weeks in to the treatment and late effects (chronic) are usually associated with the scarring effects from Radiation, months to years after treatment. You may also watch a video on the difference of the 2 treatments at the patient education website

Radiation is a local treatment for the breast, and you would be treated in a radiation facility. Chemotherapy is administered through an intravenous (IV) line or sometimes by injections and treats the whole body.

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