Now, the latest approach to radiation therapy is actually being done while patients are still in the operating room and for many women it's not only effective at preventing the disease from recurring, but it can also mean getting back to normal much faster.
Penny Thomas never expected a routine mammogram last March to find cancer, but it did.
Thomas was a good candidate for a lumpectomy, meaning only a small portion of the breast would have to be removed.
Then there was the issue of killing off any possible remaining cancerous cells.
Radiation was not something this active 67-year-old was looking forward to.
"There is like six weeks of radiation five days a week and I said that does not sound like fun," she said.
But then, her doctor at Northwestern Medicine said she could get the radiation in the operating room, right after the tumor is removed, while she is still sedated.
Instead of six weeks of treatment, it's done in 30 minutes.
It's called Intraoperative Radiation Therapy or IORT.
"There is four-year data to show there is no difference in occurrence rate between those patients undergoing the standard external beam radiation for six weeks vs. this intraoperative therapy," said Dr. Nora Hansen, surgical oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Advocates say the other advantages of this one dose delivery are that it is less irritating and minimizes exposure of radiation to other healthy tissues and organs.
Women diagnosed in the early stages of breast cancer with smaller tumors are the most likely candidates.
It's recommended for older women who are less likely to have a recurrence.
IORT requires special equipment and so far only a few centers in the area offer it. Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in suburban Barrington is now one of them.
"The energy is actually very different than the energy we use over six weeks," said radiation oncologist Dr. Jim Ruffer. "However, the safety issue, it's a very safe way to deliver radiation."
Right after the cancerous tissue is removed, precise measurements are taken and then a probe is fitted to the lumpectomy cavity and a very concentrated beam of radiation is delivered.
"This dramatically changes the way we treat our breast cancer patients," said Good Shepherd surgeon Dr. Barry Rosen.
"It's not for every patient but is for many and the applications I do believe will increase in time. There will be more and more patients who will be candidates for this."
Thomas and her husband were able to quickly get back to their busy church schedule and volunteer work with therapy dogs.
She says the best part was mentally moving past the cancer right after the surgery.
"You're done," she said. "It's not like I'm still being treated for cancer, I'm still being treated for cancer, I still have cancer I guess you know. It's done."
Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital , call HealthAdvisor at 1-800-3ADVOCATE (1.800.323.8622), or call Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital at 847.381.0123.