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Medical Radiation Exposure

Radiation is energy that is emitted (or sent out) from any source – such as heat or light from the sun, or microwaves from an oven. These are examples of low-energy radiation known as non-ionizing radiation. Our focus here is on a type of high-energy radiation called ionizing radiation, such as X-rays and radiation used in medical treatment for conditions like cancer.

Ionizing radiation can cause direct damage to cells and exposure to radiation for medical treatment can increase the risk of breast cancer. Different tissues in the body can tolerate different amounts of radiation and a person’s total exposure to radiation must be limited during treatment and over time. The dose of radiation used for medical purposes is monitored to ensure that it does more good than harm.

Radiation Therapy For Cancer

Medical radiation exposure occurs during radiation therapyRadiation therapy:
(Sometimes called radiotherapy) A treatment method that uses a high energy beam to destroy cancer cells by damaging the DNA of cancer cells so that they can’t continue to grow.
, which is a necessary treatment for many types of cancer. Radiation to the chest area before the age of 30 can lead to a high increase in the risk of breast cancer later in life.

Radiation to the chest is part of the treatment for Hodgkin's diseaseHodgkin’s disease (also called Hodgkin’s lymphoma):
A cancer that begins in white blood cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body’s immune system.
(also called Hodgkin’s lymphoma), a cancer of the lymph system. Research has found a link between radiation therapy for Hodgkin's disease before the age of 30 and an increased breast cancer risk.

If you have had radiation treatment before the age of 30 for the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease or any other health condition, Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation encourages you to speak to a health care provider about your medical history and previous radiation exposure so that you can make an informed decision about risk-reduction strategies and breast cancer screeningScreening:
The search for diseases such as breast cancer in people without symptoms. Mammography is an important tool for breast cancer screening and earlier detection.
options for the earlier detection of breast cancer.

For people diagnosed with cancer, radiation therapy continues to be one of the most important tools for cancer treatment and survival. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, ask your health care team about the benefits, limitations, and possible side effects of radiation therapy to help you make an informed decision about your treatment.

Are X-rays safe?

People encounter low doses of ionizing radiation when they have X-rays taken, such as during screening mammographyMammogram (also called mammography):
A low-dose X-ray of the breast. It is used to take images of the breasts and is an important screening tool for the earlier detection of breast cancer.
. However, the dose of radiation used for mammography is low, carefully controlled and considered safe.

In addition, most women do not have mammograms very frequently. The risk of exposure to a low dose of medical radiation every year or two is outweighed by the benefits of mammography for detecting and diagnosing breast cancer earlier. 

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation encourages women to have a mammogram with their provincial or territorial organized breast cancer screening program or a clinic accredited by the Canadian Association of Radiologists. X-ray technologists at these sites meet national standards for their qualifications and expertise and have been trained to know how to position the breasts to reduce the level of radiation exposure.



American Cancer Society. Radiation Exposure and Cancer. Accessed April 1, 2014.

Gray, J. (Sixth Ed, 2010). State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment.  Breast Cancer Fund. Accessed June 23, 2014.

Health Canada. It’s Your Health: Mammography.  Accessed June 23, 2014.