Boots WebMD Partners in Health
Return To Boots

Breast cancer health centre

Side effects of radiotherapy

BMJ Group Medical Reference

The side effects of radiotherapy can happen soon after your treatment or awhile later.

Early side effects
  • Skin reactions are less common now because of better, modern radiotherapy equipment. But your skin can get dry, red and itchy during the first two weeks to four weeks of treatment. You may get some blisters or red spots on your skin, and later it may get moist and weepy. Ask your radiotherapist about what you can put on your skin to soothe it. Avoid getting direct sunlight on your skin because it will be sensitive for some time. One study found that about 1 in 3 women who had radiotherapy had skin irritation three months later. This compared with 1 in 10 who had only breast-conserving surgery. [61]

  • Breast soreness and swelling can happen, but this should get better when your treatment finishes. One study found that about 1 in 3 women who had radiotherapy after surgery had breast pain after six months. This compares with 1 in 5 women who had only surgery. [61]

  • Breast tissue changes happen in some women. Your breast may feel more firm and solid than before radiotherapy. This may make your breasts look uneven. The skin on your breast may also get darker temporarily. You may also get a red, spidery rash over your breast, which may fade with time.

  • Overwhelming tiredness happens in some women. Some women continue to go to work while having radiotherapy, but many more stay at home because they feel so worn out. Radiotherapy can be exhausting, and the effects can last for a while after you've finished your treatment. No one knows why. Try not to get depressed. You will get your energy back. But, in the meantime, take good care of yourself and don't expect to do too much too soon. Aim to do one enjoyable thing a day. Doing some light exercise, such as taking a short walk to shops, followed by a rest is a good way to start doing things again.

Later side effects
  • Damage to the nerves in the armpit affects some women. If radiotherapy is given to your armpit, you may feel tingling or weakness in your shoulder, arm and hand. Some women find this improves over time, but others find that their arm never entirely returns to normal. However, with new radiotherapy techniques, this is increasingly rare.

  • Hair loss can happen in areas that were treated by radiotherapy. You may lose any hairs growing around your nipple. If your armpit had radiotherapy, then your hair there may fall out and not grow back.

  • Rib damage used to happen because radiotherapy weakened people's bones. This side effect is now rare.

  • Increased risk of other cancers is a possibility for women who've had radiotherapy. One study found that women who had radiotherapy for breast cancer had a slightly increased risk of getting cancer in the other breast. About 3 in 100 women who had radiotherapy got breast cancer in the other breast compared with 1 percent of those who didn't have radiotherapy. [30] Women who have breast cancer in one breast already have a slightly increased risk of getting it in their other breast.

  • Inflammation of the sac covering the heart ( pericarditis) affects about 3 in 1,000 women treated with radiotherapy. [62] It causes chest pain and fever. Women who have radiotherapy under their breastbone are most likely to get this problem. [63]

  • Fibrosis is a problem that makes your breast feel hard and change shape. If your doctor thinks that there's a high risk of your breast cancer coming back, you may have an extra boost of radiotherapy to your breast. This can cause fibrosis. [64]

Last Updated: July 23, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

Popular slideshows & tools on BootsWebMD

woman looking at pregnancy test
Early pregnancy symptoms
donut on plate
The truth about sugar addiction
smiling african american woman
Best kept secrets for beautiful hair
couple watching sunset
How much do you know?
nappy being changed
How to change your baby's nappy
woman using moisturizer
Causes and home solutions
assorted spices
Pump up the flavour with spices
bag of crisps
Food cravings that wreck your diet
woman with cucumbers on eyes
How to banish dark circles and bags
probiotic shakes
Help digestion
polka dot dress on hangar
Lose weight without dieting