Side effects from breast cancer treatment are somewhat common and vary from patient to patient. Understanding the side effects that could occur can help you better prepare for them, especially if this is your first time going through treatment. And, even if you’ve received breast cancer treatment before, your body may react differently this time. Don’t be alarmed if you experience a side effect that you didn’t the first time.
Keep in mind that each person is unique and won’t have the exact same experiences. Remember to talk to your oncologist or your nurse at the cancer center about any specific issues that arise. They’re often full of great tips on how to manage a specific side effect.
It’s important to note that any cancer patient who develops a fever should call their cancer care team right away. This could be caused by an infection that your oncologist will need to address quickly.
Types of Treatment for Breast Cancer
Thanks to clinical research and advancing technology, there are quite a few treatments for breast cancer. The right set of treatments varies based on several factors including the type of breast cancer, its stage, and whether it’s fueled by hormones or HER2 protein. The answers to these questions will determine the best treatment plan. Some of the most common breast cancer treatment methods are:
- Breast cancer removal surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy)
- External beam radiation therapy
- Internal high dose radiation therapy for early-stage breast cancer patients
- Hormone therapy
- Targeted therapy
If you’d like to learn more about a specific treatment, our Breast Cancer Treatment page provides further information on each method. It’s common to have more than one treatment type as part of your plan.
Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects
Treatment often targets the ‘bad’ cancer cells in the body, but in doing so, it can also harm the healthy cells. This is often why breast cancer patients feel side effects. Some of the more common side effects can include:
- Fatigue - exhaustion that won’t go away with a good night’s rest
- Hair loss
- Weight fluctuations
- Nausea or vomiting
- Skin irritation where radiation therapy is given
- More frequent infections caused by low white cell counts
- Loss of appetite
- Mouth sores
- Chemo brain
- Early menopause if diagnosed before menopause
- Low red blood cell count (anemia)
The set of side effects each patient is likely to experience is based on the treatments given. Some therapies result in different side effects than others.
For instance, targeted therapies may be more likely to cause side effects like fevers, chills, pain, headaches, rashes, or breathing changes. Chemotherapy is more likely to cause hair loss, nausea, vomiting, change in blood cell counts, or numbness.
How to Manage Side Effects
If you are experiencing side effects impacting your quality of life, make sure you speak to your oncologist. There are some side effects they may not be able to avoid, but there are others that can be treated with medications or other helpful products.
Some suggestions on how to manage breast cancer treatment side effects include:
You might start to notice you don’t feel hungry while going through treatments. Because of this you may not be getting the nutrition required to let your body heal. Consider protein or nutritional shakes. Many of these products are made for those with nutritional concerns or those who struggle to eat full meals. This can also be helpful for those who develop mouth sores. The cool shake can be soothing to the mouth.
Be sure you get your prescription for anti-nausea medicine filled and take the prescribed amounts before and after treatment to help reduce nausea greatly. If you still have some queasiness, try to get some food in your stomach, even if you don’t feel like eating. Aim for bland foods like crackers, rice, or mashed potatoes. Ginger has helped some with their nausea and can be found in teas or even snacks. Eating foods at room temperature may also help.
Fatigue and Exhaustion:
While you may not feel like it, some exercise can help give you more energy and help you fall asleep at night. Try to make time at night to get adequate sleep and use relaxation techniques that work for you, such as meditation or aromatherapy. If you need help with chores or find that they contribute to feeling tired, ask for help from friends or family.
Another common side effect of cancer treatment is hair loss. There may be changes to the hair as well, such as thinning. Many women cope with hair loss by purchasing wigs or cutting their hair beforehand. If possible, talk to your medical oncology team about using a scalp cooling technology that helps prevent hair loss when used at the same time as chemo. After treatment, your hair will grow back, but it may be a slightly different texture.
Sometimes radiation therapy will cause irritation similar to sunburn on the chest area where radiation is being directed. Try to start using lotion before treatment and care for the area like you would a sunburn with soothing lotions.
Some medications will cause sores in the mouth, even though you’re not being treated with oral medications. They can also be the result of a dry mouth. Try to use a dry mouth solution available at the drugstore to keep the mouth clean and to keep the mouth wet inside. This will also help reduce tooth decay during this period of time.
Remember…most of these side effects are temporary and you’ll start to feel better after treatment is complete.
Talk to Your Cancer Care Team
While you are getting breast cancer treatment, keep your care team updated on how you are feeling. If you are finding some symptoms are impacting your quality of life, your physician or the nurse may have some alternative ideas that work for some of their patients.
While we consider most side effects physical, there are also emotional impacts. Being diagnosed with breast cancer and going through treatment takes a toll on you mentally. If you have noticed changes, inform your oncologist. There are social workers who specialize in cancer care that can help direct you to the best resources in the Atlanta area for assistance for you and your family members coping with cancer treatment.
Our radiation oncologists work closely with area medical oncologists to create the right treatment plan for each patient, choosing the right technologies and the timing for each person.