Study: Most breast cancer patients' fear of radiation unfounded

Many breast cancer patients harbor misconceptions and fears about radiation treatment—and a new study reveals most patients find their actual experience is better than anticipated.

The team of researchers led by Susan McCloskey, MD, and Narek Shaverdian, MD, with the University of California, Los Angeles, published their findings online Feb. 25 in Cancer.

The two surveyed 502 patients who were treated for breast cancer between 2012 and 2016. Among those, 327 patients responded to the survey, and 83 percent underwent breast conservation therapy (defined as lumpectomy and radiation therapy).

"We wanted to look at the patients' perspective of the breast cancer radiation experience, to have tangible real-world data to guide future patients and providers in their decision making," said Shaverdian, in a press release.

The survey indicated 68 percent of patients had little to no knowledge about radiation therapy, but 47 percent reported hearing frightening stories about it. Just 2 percent of patients agreed the negative stories they heard were true. Some 83 percent noted short-term radiation side effects, such as breast pain, work limitations and family disruptions, were less than or as expected. A similar 84 percent gave the same answer regarding long-term side effects.

Among those surveyed, 93 percent of breast conservation patients and 81 percent of mastectomy patients affirmed the statement “If future patients knew the truth about radiation therapy, they would be less scared about treatment.”

"The word radiation itself sounds frightening and is associated with many negative news stories, but the implications of this study are that, in actuality, radiation therapy for breast cancer is a much better treatment experience than perceived," said McCloskey, in the release. "We hope these real-world data from the voices of past patients can give future patients a better understanding of modern breast radiation therapy when making treatment decisions.”