October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we are doing our part to raise awareness by discussing a lesser-known topic around the disease – the connection between the treatment for breast cancer and lung disease or other pulmonary problems. Breast cancer treatment often involves intense radiotherapy, which exposes patients to radiation in order to kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, the radiation also affects cells other than the cancerous ones, damaging small blood vessels and the DNA of otherwise healthy cells. So, can breast cancer treatment cause lung disease? The answer is yes. Here are some of the lung problems that can result from radiation treatment.
The Connection Between Radiation for Breast Cancer and Lung Damage
Studies have shown that breast cancer patients that have undergone postoperative radiotherapy have a higher risk of developing radiation pneumonitis.1 Radiation pneumonitis is the inflation of the lungs caused by radiation therapy for cancer. Symptoms, which include shortness of breath, sharp chest pain, coughing, and fever, typically occur 2 to 3 months after completing radiotherapy. Radiation pneumonitis in breast cancer patients can be treated with steroids and won’t usually cause any long-term effects.
However, if radiation pneumonitis is left untreated, the condition can lead to pulmonary fibrosis.2 This radiation-induced fibrosis, commonly referred to as radiation fibrosis syndrome (RFS), is a life-long condition characterized by permanent scarring of the lungs. Pulmonary fibrosis can be a long-term effect of radiotherapy with symptoms occurring months or even years after the treatment.
Can Radiation Treatment For Breast Cancer Cause Lung Cancer?
While rare, there are cases of breast cancer patients developing a second cancer after undergoing radiation therapy. Multiple studies have shown breast cancer patients who have been treated with radiation have an increased risk of developing lung cancer3, 4, this risk is even higher for patients who smoke.5 Still, the risk of developing a second cancer due to radiotherapy remains relatively small.
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- I. Rothwell, S.A. Kelly, et al., ScienceDirect – Radiation pneumonitis in patients treated for breast cancer
- Kainthola A, Haritwal T, Tiwari M, et al., US National Library of Medicine – Immunological Aspect of Radiation-Induced Pneumonitis, Current Treatment Strategies, and Future Prospects
- Trine Grantzaua, Mette Skovhus Thomsen, et al., ScienceDirect – Risk of second primary lung cancer in women after radiotherapy for breast cancer
- ESTRO, ScienceDaily – Increased risk of developing lung cancer after radiotherapy for breast cancer
- Carolyn Taylor, Candace Correa, et al., Journal of Clinical Oncology – Estimating the Risks of Breast Cancer Radiotherapy: Evidence From Modern Radiation Doses to the Lungs and Heart and From Previous Randomized Trials