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Common Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatments

There are many different types of breast cancer treatment options available. Your oncologist will work with you to create a customized treatment plan based on many factors (such as your age, overall health, size of the tumor, etc.). While these treatments are helpful, the side effects can be difficult. We wanted to discuss some of the side effects you may experience during breast cancer treatments and how you can combat them. 

Surgery

Surgery is one of the most common treatment options for breast cancer. The two types of surgery you may have are lumpectomy (partial breast removal) or mastectomy (entire breast removal). As with any surgery, there is a period of downtime as your body recovers.

Common side effects from these breast cancer surgeries may include:

  • Swelling of the breast (usually short-term) 
  • Swelling near lymph nodes (if lymph nodes are removed)
  • Pain near or around the incision site
  • Incision infection or bleeding
  • Phantom pain in the breast that has been removed

Tips for easing the side effects of breast cancer surgery: 

Swelling and pain may be addressed by taking prescription or over-the-counter pain medications. Your doctor may also suggest certain exercises to help with swelling and soreness. 

It’s important to keep the bandages in place until your doctor removes them as it helps protect the wound, keeps the area dry, and reduces your chances of infection or prolonged bleeding. 

Radiation Therapy 

Radiation therapy is another option that uses high-energy rays to kill breast cancer cells. While this radiation treatment treats only the cells in the part of the body that has cancer, it can still have some side effects. The side effects depend on what type of radiation therapy you have (internal or external).

Common side effects from radiation therapy for breast cancer include:

  • Pain around the breast or discomfort in the shoulder
  • Swelling of the breast or nearby tissue
  • Skin changes such as peeling, flaking, dry, itching
  • Hair loss on the armpit or chest area
  • Sore throat when applying radiation to the lymph nodes on the neck
  • Fatigue following radiation treatment

Tips for easing side effects caused by radiation therapy:

Your doctor may recommend the following tips to help make the process more comfortable:

  • Wear loose-fitting clothing on the day of treatment as well as the days following treatment to help reduce the chances of your clothes brushing up against your skin
  • Use heating pads or ice packs to help reduce pain and swelling
  • Apply unscented moisturizer to help with skin changes, especially itching and flaking
  • Rest as much as possible before and after radiation treatment to minimize fatigue
  • Reach out to a friend or family member to help with daily activities so you may rest

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a breast cancer treatment given to you through your vein (intravenous) or pill form. It’s common for patients to be given a combination of medications during chemotherapy treatment. Some possible side effects include:

Short-term side effects of chemo include: 

  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Skin and nail changes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Risk of developing infections

Long-term side effects of chemo include:

  • Infertility
  • Heart damage
  • Bone thinning
  • Leukemia

Tips easing the side effects of chemo:

Short-term side effects may be reduced by taking a little extra care of yourself in the days before and after treatment. Your white blood count is lower after breast cancer treatment, which is why many of these short-term side effects happen.

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Try to minimize stress as much as possible.
  • Wash your hands regularly and reduce your exposure to germs while your white blood count is lower. 
  • Ask your doctor about flu vaccinations or other precautions you should take during the sick seasons.
  • If hair loss occurs, you may look into options such as a headscarf or wig or speak with your doctor about ways to prevent hair loss. 

Make plans to take off work or school in the days following your treatments so you may rest. You may also want to ask a family member or friend to help you for a few days while recovering from the treatments.

For long-term side effects, you may consider some additional planning. For instance, if you’re concerned about infertility, then you may want to make arrangements to freeze your eggs before you begin treatment. Your doctor will provide other information regarding managing heart damage or bone thinning. 

Hormone Therapy

If the tumor in your breast has hormone receptors, then hormone therapy treatment may be an effective breast cancer treatment for you. Side effects associated with hormone therapy include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain

Tips easing side effects caused by hormone therapy for breast cancer:

The side effects caused by hormone therapies can often be addressed with some of the following tips:

  • Hot flashes may be managed by wearing loose-fitting clothing, reducing your stress, or avoiding spicy foods, caffeine, or alcohol. In some instances, your doctor may prescribe other medications to relieve hot flashes. 
  • Vaginal lubricants may help reduce dryness. 
  • To combat fatigue, it’s often recommended to maintain a regular sleep schedule, rest throughout the day, and start an exercise routine. 
  • If you feel nauseous, eating bland foods (crackers, bread, cereal) may help. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-nausea medications. 

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy for breast cancer involves the use of prescription medications that boost the immune system. Some forms of breast cancer will respond to immunotherapy by using your body’s immune system to slow or stop cancer growth. 

Some side effects of immunotherapy may include:

  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea. 

Tips for easing side effects caused by immunotherapy:

  • Eating bland foods and introducing other foods slowly may help reduce nausea, constipation, and diarrhea.
  • While the loss of appetite is common, be patient with yourself as your body recovers from treatments. Start by eating small amounts of food and then increase over time.
  • Coughing can cause a sore throat, so keep throat lozenges on hand.
  • Fatigue is also a common side effect of immunotherapy. Allow yourself to rest and ask other people to help with daily activities as much as possible.

For more cancer treatment tips and side effect management, you can visit our Cancer Treatment Tips page.

Compass Oncology - The US Oncology Network