Managing Symptoms and Side Effects
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2018 | Last updated: April 2023
Living with advanced breast cancer can be challenging, both emotionally and physically. In addition to symptoms from the disease, treatments used to slow or stop cancer’s growth can cause unwanted side effects and create additional strain on a person’s body and emotions.
Some side effects from treatment are temporary, and they go away once treatment is finished. Other side effects may be long-term or permanent. Throughout treatment for advanced breast cancer, there are ways to help manage side effects and symptoms and improve a person's quality of life.
Common symptoms of advanced breast cancer
When cancer develops in the breast, it can cause changes in the texture or shape of the breast. Breast cancer may cause a lump, dimpling of the breast skin, changes to the nipple, or a discharge from the nipple.1
When breast cancer spreads and forms tumors in other parts of the body, the symptoms can vary depending on where the metastases occur. Metastasis to the bones can cause symptoms such as pain in the affected bone, fractures, fatigue, or loss of appetite. Metastasis to the lung can cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing, a dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, or pain in the lungs.2
Metastasis to the liver may not cause symptoms at first, and the first signs of liver metastasis may be picked up by blood tests, which measure the levels of certain enzymes and proteins that fluctuate depending on how the liver is functioning. However, breast cancer metastasis to the liver may cause symptoms such as jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin), itchy skin, pain in the abdomen, or loss of appetite.2
Managing symptoms of advanced breast cancer
Treatment for advanced breast cancer may include a combination of approaches, including local and systemic therapies. Local treatments are those which focus on treating the tumor in a specific area of the body, while systemic treatments go throughout the body to treat cancer cells. Treatments that are directly aimed at killing or slowing the growth of cancer cells can reduce the symptoms of breast cancer, although treatments can also cause unwanted side effects.3
In addition to active treatments that attack cancer, palliative care is a type of medical care that focuses on alleviating symptoms from cancer and side effects from cancer treatment, as well as maximizing the person's quality of life. Palliative care can be given alongside other treatment and may include a variety of medications, procedures, or other treatments that can relieve symptoms and make the person feel better.3
Common side effects of breast cancer treatment
The side effects experienced can vary between people and depend on several factors, including the medications given, the person’s overall health, and what other treatments are being received. Each treatment option carries a different possible list of side effects, and your healthcare team can provide information on what to expect. Not everyone who receives the same treatment has the same experience, and side effects can vary in their intensity among different individuals. Some common side effects from treatment for advanced breast cancer include:4
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sexual difficulties
Managing side effects from breast cancer treatment
Many side effects can be managed, and some can be prevented. Communication with your healthcare team is critical, and any side effects you experience should be brought to the attention of a doctor or nurse.
Side effects from breast cancer treatment are often temporary and tend to go away after treatment is completed. However, some side effects may last longer or be irreversible. Reducing the dosage, changing medications, or delaying treatment regimens can be potential options to help manage some side effects. Palliative care can also be helpful in preventing or relieving side effects from treatment.