The Many Symptoms and Side Effects of Advanced Breast Cancer

Last updated: December 2020

Each person’s journey with advanced breast cancer is unique. Diagnosis, treatment, progression, and more can all be incredibly varied. One area of advanced breast cancer that can be especially diverse includes symptoms. These may be symptoms directly related to having breast cancer, or they may be side effects from treatment. Regardless of the cause, symptoms and side effects are often hard to predict and have a big impact on quality of life.

In our 2020 Advanced Breast Cancer In America survey, we explored the symptoms and side effects that affect people living with the condition. More than 500 people with advanced breast cancer completed the survey, and nearly every single respondent shared that they have experienced a variety of symptoms and side effects along their journey.

Fatigue and hair loss affects most people with advanced breast cancer

Fatigue was the single most commonly reported symptom. More than 80 percent of survey respondents have ever experienced fatigue as a result of their diagnosis, and more than 70 percent of respondents said they had felt fatigued within the past month.

Hair loss was another common side effect, with more than 73 percent of respondents sharing that they had experienced it. However, unlike fatigue, many fewer respondents reported experiencing this side effect recently. Only 25 percent said they had experienced hair loss within the past month.

A variety of other physical and cognitive issues are common

The majority of survey respondents also reported that they have experienced distinct physical and cognitive symptoms and side effects of their diagnosis. These include:

  • 64 percent have experienced back, bone, chest, or joint pain
  • 63 have experienced concentration/memory and/or confusion
  • 61 have experienced sleep problems
  • 60 have experienced hot flashes
  • 56 have experienced neuropathy (numbness and pain from nerve damage, usually in the hands and feet)

Interestingly, 49 percent of survey respondents shared that they had experienced sleep problems within the past month, second only to fatigue. This suggests that although sleep may not be one of the most common symptoms in general, it is one that often impacts daily life for those who experience it.

Many also experience gastrointestinal issues

Gastrointestinal, or digestive, issues were common in many survey respondents. The specific symptoms and side effects they have experienced include:

  • Diarrhea (53 percent)
  • Nausea or vomiting (49 percent)
  • Constipation (46 percent)
  • Loss of appetite (43 percent)
  • Mouth or throat sores (42 percent)
  • Weight gain (42 percent)
  • Weight loss (34 percent)

Symptoms and side effects are far-reaching

While some symptoms and side effects were not reported by as many survey respondents, these issues show that advanced breast cancer has a far-reaching impact on physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Although these symptoms and side effects were not as common as others, they were still experienced by at least a quarter of all respondents. Some of these included:

  • Numbness or weakness anywhere in the body (42 percent)
  • Sexual issues or vaginal dryness (41 percent)
  • Mood swings (35 percent)
  • Headache (34 percent)
  • Vision problems (33 percent)
  • Blood disorders or low blood counts (32 percent)
  • Skin changes (32 percent)
  • Difficulty breathing (31 percent)
  • Loss of balance (29 percent)
  • Chills (27 percent)
  • Cough (27 percent)

While there is a wide variety of symptoms and side effects that can accompany advanced breast cancer, there are still many commonly experienced issues. It is clear from information shared by survey respondents that although your journey with breast cancer may be unique, you are far from being alone.

The 2020 Advanced Breast Cancer In America survey was conducted online from September 2019 through February 2020. 546 people with advanced-stage breast cancer completed the survey.

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