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Breast Cancer Treatment Side Effects

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2023

Treatments for advanced breast cancer target the cancer cells. But they can also create uncomfortable side effects. The side effects experienced can vary from person to person. Side effects depend on several factors, including the treatment given, your overall health, and any other treatments received. Not everyone who receives the same treatment will have the same experience.1,2

Some side effects are temporary and go away once a particular treatment is over. Others may last for months or years after treatment. Some side effects may be permanent. Both during and after treatment, there are often ways to manage side effects.1,2

Surgery

Side effects from surgery will depend on various factors, including how invasive it is. For example, people with full mastectomies and lymph node removals may be more likely to have side effects. Side effects from surgery include:1,3

  • Pain around surgery site, in shoulder, or arm
  • Lymphedema, a chronic condition where lymph fluid builds up. It causes swelling and pain
  • Changes in body image

Radiation

Radiation uses high-energy rays, like X-rays, to kill cancer cells. Radiation may cause side effects such as:1,2

  • Tiredness
  • Swelling
  • Lymphedema
  • Skin irritation, burning, redness, or blistering

In rare cases, radiation can cause swelling in the lungs (pneumonitis).1

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs that target fast-growing cells, such as breast cancer cells. But chemotherapy can also attack healthy cells that grow quickly in the body, such as in the digestive tract and hair. Chemotherapy may cause side effects like:1-3

  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Hair loss
  • Pain
  • Increased risk of infections
  • Tiredness
  • Early menopause
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating, which is sometimes referred to as “chemo-brain”

Hormone therapy

Some types of breast cancer can be treated with hormone therapy. This is also called endocrine therapy. It is used for tumors that test positive for either estrogen or progesterone receptors. It can cause side effects such as:1

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapies work by interfering with specific areas of cancer cells that are involved in the cell’s growth processes or focusing on specific features that are unique to cancer cells. Any potential side effects are specific to the type of targeted therapy given. Side effects may include:1,4

  • Skin, hair, nail, or eye problems
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Risk of heart damage

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy works by helping your immune system to attack the cancer cells. Side effects may include:1

  • Skin rashes
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight changes

Long-term side effects

The risk of long-term side effects depends on the type of treatment used. These are side effects that continue to impact you long after treatment is done. Examples include:1,3

  • Heart problems caused by chemotherapy, radiation, or some targeted therapies
  • Lymphedema caused by surgery or radiation
  • Lung problems caused by chemotherapy or radiation
  • Weakness in the bones (osteoporosis) caused by chemotherapy or hormonal therapy

Managing side effects from breast cancer treatment

Many side effects can be managed, and some can be prevented. It can help to explain your side effects to your healthcare team. This helps them manage side effects and keeps them aware of any complications.1,2,5

Managing any side effects will depend on your symptoms and treatments. Many side effects can be helped with medicine. For other side effects, you may meet with a specialist such as a physical therapist, nutritionist, or sleep specialist. These specialists may be able to offer solutions that can help manage your cancer treatment side effects.1,5

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