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Breast Cancer Treatment Complications

Overview

Breast cancer occurs when breast cells grow out of control and form a tumor in the breast. Cancerous or malignant tumors can spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer mainly affects women, but men can get it too.

Treatment for breast cancer can result in adverse side effects or complications for anyone who is going through it. For example the use of chemotherapy drugs come with a number of side effects. How your body reacts to a treatment plan however, can be different from someone else. It all depends on the type of breast cancer treatment being administered to you. Talk to your doctor if you experience any side effects or complications while being treated for breast cancer.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells. Cancer cells, along with skin cells, and digestive tract cells are the most vulnerable to chemotherapy medication. This can lead to hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. Doctors often will prescribe you additional medications during chemotherapy to reduce or relieve nausea and vomiting. Other side effects include:

  • infection
  • fatigue
  • bruising
  • bleeding
  • sleep disturbances

Many of these side effects can be attributed to low blood counts. This is a common occurrence during chemotherapy because the dividing blood cells in bone marrow are also prone to damage from medications used in this type of treatment. In rare cases, some chemotherapy drugs can cause heart damage or trigger another cancer such as leukemia.

Chemotherapy in premenopausal women may damage ovaries to the point that they stop producing hormones. This can cause early menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness and hot flashes. Menstrual periods may stop or become irregular. Getting pregnant may also become difficult. Women who experience chemotherapy- induced menopause may also face a higher risk of osteoporosis.

Most people find that side effects go away after the treatment is finished. However the emotional distress of the experience may also cause the physical side effects to feel more intense Some may have issues with concentration and memory loss, known as “chemo-brain,” “chemo-fog,” or “chemo-memory.” This is usually short lived.

Psychological side effects of chemotherapy and breast cancer itself also include:

  • depression
  • fear
  • sadness
  • feelings of isolation
  • sleep disturbances

Some people have a difficult time readjusting to the lifestyle they had before treatment. Thoughts of a relapse can be daunting. Talking with a therapist, support groups, or regular contact with a loved one during this period is recommended.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can result in more serious side effects. These can develop slowly. But over time, the side effects, that at first, seemed manageable can become debilitating. Serious complications include:

  • inflamed lung tissue
  • heart damage
  • secondary cancers

These side effects are very rare. More common but less serious ones include skin burns, irritation or discoloration, fatigue, and lymphedema.

Hormone therapy

Some types of hormone therapy lower estrogen levels in women, and increase the risk for osteoporosis. Your doctor may monitor your bone mineral density while you're taking this medication. Lower estrogen levels also may lead to vaginal dryness and irritation. Other kinds of hormonal therapy increase your risk of blood clots and endometrial cancer.

Mastectomy

A mastectomy is the surgical removal of all or part of the breast. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, complications include:

  • temporary swelling of the breast
  • breast tenderness
  • hardness due to scar tissue that can form at the site of the incision
  • wound infection or bleeding
  • swelling of the arm due to lymph node removal, called lymphedema
  • phantom breast pain, including symptoms such as unpleasant itching, a sensation of “pins and needles,” pressure, and throbbing

A mastectomy also has psychological implications. Some women may find it distressing to lose one or both breasts. You may also experience depression or anxiety following the surgery. It’s essential to address these feelings through therapy, a support group, or other means.

You may choose to have reconstructive breast surgery following a mastectomy in order to retain the same physical appearance prior to the procedure. Others may prefer to use breast prostheses to achieve the same results.

Outlook

There are many different options available for treating breast cancer, each with their own benefits and complications. Talk to your doctor about which treatment option is best for you. After you begin treatment, be sure to tell your doctor of any side effects and complications you experience.

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