Different types of breast cancer therapy can cause both temporary side effects that stop soon after the treatment is complete and long-term problems. The side effects that you may experience during your rehabilitation, like fatigue or hot flushes, can make you feel like your condition is not improving. For some patients, these are a constant reminder of the cancer they are battling.
A recent study on the side effects of breast cancer therapies, led by Christopher Fries at the University of Michigan and published in the journal Cancer, shows that 42 percent of the respondents reported severe side effects. The significant figure was alarming, and it is prompting healthcare professionals to listen carefully to what patients may be telling them about what they are going through.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing treatment, know these common side effects of orthodox therapies and ways to manage them.
The hormone estrogen can stimulate a certain type of breast cancer called estrogen receptor positive (ER+). Hormone therapy, also known as endocrine therapy, prevents the adverse effect of estrogen on breast cancer cells.
Everyone reacts differently to drugs and some patients encounter more side effects than others. The most common problems reported among people under hormone therapy are menopausal symptoms. These include mood changes, hot flushes, vaginal dryness, reduced sex drive, and night sweats that are often more intense than when menopause happens naturally. Other side effects of most hormone drugs include headaches, extreme tiredness, nausea, and joint/muscle pain.
Hormone therapy medication side effects can be difficult to cope with. Before putting off your treatment, consult with your cancer specialist first. There might be other ways to improve your symptoms or a different drug that will suit you better.
Chemotherapy is a drug or a combination of drugs used to kill cancer cells. Since it affects people in different ways, two patients having the same drugs may feel completely different to each of them during their therapy.
This method can temporarily affect the number of healthy blood cells in the body by reducing the ability of the bone marrow to produce these cells. You will have regular blood tests so your doctor can learn when to give a lesser dose or delay your next session. If your white blood cells drop below the acceptable level, your risk of getting an infection increases. Your physician may recommend antibiotics or administer growth factors that stimulate the production of these cells.
A product of having few red blood cells is anemia. This will make you dizzy, breathless, or tired. Let your medical team know if you are struggling with these symptoms. A blood transfusion may be necessary if your red blood cell level falls significantly.
Hair loss is one of the most distressing side effects of the treatment for many patients. You can get a prescription from your doctor for a wig. They often call it “cranial prosthetics” so that medical insurance will cover it. Coconut, carrot, and olive oils rubbed on your scalp daily can stimulate growth.
Other known side effects of chemotherapy are nausea, sickness, and vomiting. You may need to take a combination of drugs to relieve your nausea and sickness. Remember that severe vomiting needs immediate attention, so contact your hospital if you experience this.
This treatment involves delivering powerful waves of energy to prevent the division and growth of cancer cells. It kills these problematic cells, reducing the speed at which they grow, and shrinking tumors to enable surgery. It is estimated that around 60 percent of people being treated for cancer in the U.S. will receive radiotherapy.
Several factors affect the effectivity of radiation treatment, such as the overall health of the patient and the dose and type of radiation used. Short-term side effects include lethargy or fatigue, tissue inflammation, diarrhea, urinary problems, and hair loss in the chest or armpit area.
Skin irritation is also a common side effect of the therapy but this depends on various factors. Reactions on the skin usually start around 10 to 14 days after starting the treatment, but can happen later in the program or after it has finished. You may notice that your skin is becoming darker or pinker over time; it may feel dry, tender, sore, and itchy; appear moist and weepy or flake and peel as therapy goes on.
It is important to look after your skin during radiation treatment. Your healthcare team should provide you with skincare instructions to reduce pain, prevent infection, and keep treated area comfortable. Having a shower than a bath and using a mild soap are usually advised by most radiotherapy centers.
Surgery is typically done to cure breast cancer. As with other types of surgery, side effects include discomfort or pain, risk of infection, and some limitations with mobility right after the procedure. Here are the two main kinds of breast cancer operation:
- Lumpectomy – This is also called breast-sparing surgery, wherein conserving the breast tissue is attainable. Only the tumor and surrounding tissue will be removed, but the patient can still have her breast form. Lumpectomy comes with the risk of loss of sensation, depending on the size of the lump removed. The size and shape of your breasts may also differ because the affected breast will be smaller. This is not immediately noticeable because of swelling after the surgery.
- Mastectomy – For this procedure, the entire breast is removed. Often, the surgeon will take away the lymph nodes under the arm as well. After the operation, some people also go through radiation therapy. You can avail of plastic surgery or breast reconstruction to rebuild the shape of your breast.
A breast cancer diagnosis is a stressful and emotional experience. For that reason, many women rush into therapy without knowing the possible side effects. Be sure to discuss your options with your healthcare team thoroughly before getting into any therapy.
Most cancer specialists allow patients a few weeks to a month to decide on their treatment, which some may find to be too soon. Communicate effectively and understand the negative consequences of each option, so you can make informed choices in your fight against breast cancer.