Breast Cancer - Dealing with Treatment Side Effects

Treatment options for breast cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and others. Each of these has got its side effects, some more and some less. Any kind of drug going into the body will have some chemical impact, especially if they are strong medicines for diseases like cancer. But, these effects are short-term and can be overcome if dealt with appropriate measures.

Breast Cancer - Dealing with Treatment Side Effects

Types of Breast Cancer Side Effects

  • Emotional Side Effects: Feeling anxious and depressed is a normal experience for women with breast cancer and has nothing to do with any particular treatment. With fear and anxiety looming large as life begins to look shaky and uncertain, it is natural for the patient to feel depressed. But, with family support and proper counseling, these issues can be resolved. There are many cancer support groups which are geared to handle this and becoming a part of such a group goes a long way in fighting the disease.
  • Physical Side Effects: More specific to breast cancer treatment are physical side effects like nausea, vomiting, hair loss, weight loss/gain, fatigue, etc. Symptoms vary from person to person, treatment to treatment and may also depend on the cancer type. It is not necessary that all the symptoms will be felt by one person and some may even go through the treatments without experiencing many of the below mentioned.

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy involves giving drugs intravenously or orally to destroy breast cancer cells. But along with the malignant cells, healthy cells are damaged, too, leading to other health issues. This therapy has some side effects like nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, weakness, anemia, lymphedema, pain, loss of hair, mouth soreness, diarrhea, weight gain, premature menopause, reduced resistance power to infections and bleeding.

A lot of breast cancer patients feel very low during chemotherapy and think that these side effects will stay with them for a long time. But once the chemo is over, these symptoms gradually subside and quality of life improves.

Nausea and Vomiting during Chemotherapy

Nausea and vomiting are among the most dreaded side-effects of cancer treatment and can have a depressing effect on you. But, there are medicines that can be taken to not only control but also prevent them. Your doctor will need to examine the type of drug you are being given and how it is affecting you and will then prescribe medicines. He or she is likely to ask you to take it before chemo and even before nausea and vomiting start because it is easier to prevent than to control.

Risk of Infection for Breast Cancer Patients

Cancer patients are more at risk of infection than would otherwise be and this is one of the most common life-threatening complications of cancer. Low immunity and low ANC, or absolute neutrophil count, is the reason for this. Therefore, proper precautions should be taken to keep infections at bay. The breast cancer patient should avoid going out into crowded places and try to keep a sanitized environment around you. Seek the advice of your doctor or a registered dietitian regarding what you should you eat and drink. Your doctor is likely to prescribe medicines and vaccines against infections.

Fatigue and Anemia during Breast Cancer Treatment

You are likely to feel tired, weak and anemic during treatment but all this is short-lived. Once the treatment stops, all these effects will gradually go away, too. You can handle these symptoms by avoiding too much work, eating well, taking in-between rests and staying active with some amount of gentle exercise. Anemia may be treated via drugs and eating iron-rich foods like dark green leafy vegetables, prunes, raisins, dried apricots and peaches, beans, meat and fish, cereal, pasta. Transfusion of red blood cells may be an extreme measure and taken only when the hemoglobin level has dropped too much and needs to be raised quickly.

Side Effects of Breast Cancer Surgery

A breast cancer surgery can have pain or lymphedema as its side effects. The key to controlling these side effects is talking to your doctor or healthcare expert. Let him or her know what you are going through and follow the advice and instructions given.

Pain during Breast Cancer Treatment

Pain could be due to the surgery or because of cancer. Your doctor will treat the pain as per the reason for its occurrence. Medicines, procedures or surgery may be the course of treatment. If the pain is due to the tumor and medicines are not working, then radiation may be given to shrink the tumor or surgery conducted to remove it. Sometimes, neurosurgery may be carried out to cut the nerves or nerves may be blocked to provide relief from the pain.

Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

This condition occurs after breast cancer surgery when, as part of the procedure, the doctor is required to remove one or more lymph nodes from the underarm area resulting in lymph vessels being removed too. The removal of lymph nodes/vessels causes swelling in the arm as the fluid that was carried from the arm to the rest of the body through the vessels now cannot be drained leading to a fluid build-up. Radiation to the underarm area, too, can be responsible for lymphedema because it may damage the nodes and vessels.

However, not all get this condition. Risk of lymphedema goes up if a larger number of lymph nodes are removed. Lymphedema may occur immediately after surgery or many years later. Early management of this condition will help you gain better control over this condition.

Radiation Therapy Side Effects

There are some side effects which are caused by radiation therapy, too. These may occur either during the therapy and go away some time once the treatment stops or maybe noticed much later and be more of a permanent nature. Skin changes, fatigue, diarrhea and troubled eating are some of the side effects of breast cancer radiation therapy.

Hormone Therapy Side Effects

Side effects of breast cancer hormone therapy include painful joints, mood swings, fatigue, hot flushes and sweats, changes in the menstrual cycle, nausea, vaginal dryness or discharge. Your doctor may prescribe something for the hot flushes and sweat but avoiding spicy food and tea or coffee may help bring these down, too. Painful joints may be managed with paracetamol while medicines may be given for nausea. These side effects are usually short-lived.

Targeted Therapy Side Effects

Skin changes, hair growth and color changes, changes in an around the eyes, high blood pressure and the more common nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, fatigue, cough, etc., are the side effects of targeted therapy. Mild-to-moderate skin changes can be handled with skin creams and gels. In extreme cases of severe rash and itching, antibiotic might be required. Avoid exposure to the sunlight. Your doctor may have to prescribe medicines for high blood pressure.