Breast Cancer Treatment Complications

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 2, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD on September 2, 2014

Breast Cancer Treatment Complications

Breast cancer treatment methods can sometimes result in complications or unpleasant side effects. For example, side effects may occur with any chemotherapy drug.  Side effects and complications will differ depending on differences in treatment plans, in the drugs themselves, and in the individual.

Talk to your doctor if you experience any side effects or potential complications.

Chemotherapy

Issues in the digestive tract and hair loss are common side effects. Their cells divide rapidly and are damaged as the cancer cells are killed off.  Because nausea and vomiting are such common and prominent side effects of chemotherapy, doctors often will prescribe additional medications to provide relief. Other common side effects include:

  • low blood counts
  • fatigue
  • easier bruising
  • infection

These are common because the dividing cells of the bone marrow are also prone to damage from chemotherapy medications.  

Chemotherapy can cause heart damage or trigger another cancer such as leukemia in rare cases. The more common, long-term breast cancer treatment complications are more gender-specific. Chemotherapy in premenopausal women may damage ovaries so that they stop producing hormones. This can cause menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness and hot flashes. Menstrual periods may stop or become very irregular, making pregnancy virtually impossible. Women who experience these side effects may also face a higher risk for bone-thinning osteoporosis.

Most women find that side effects go away after treatment is finished.  The emotional distress of treatment may also cause side effects to feel more intense than they physically are.  For some, the short-term issues with concentration and memory loss, known as “chemo-brain, chemo-fog, or chemo-memory,” add to the challenge.

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

  • depression
  • fear
  • sadness
  • feelings of isolation

Some women have a difficult time adjusting back to a “normal” life after treatment. Thoughts of a relapse in the not-so-distant background can be daunting.  Talk therapy with a professional or regular contact with a loved one during this period is highly advisable.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation and hormone therapies can also result in rare, more serious side effects. Side effects of radiation therapy can come on slowly. Over time, common side effects that seemed manageable at first can become debilitating. More serious complications can include inflamed lung tissue, heart damage, or even secondary cancers.

Hormone Therapy

The lowered estrogen caused by hormone therapy can also significantly increase risk for osteoporosis. Your doctor may monitor your bone mineral density while you're taking the medication. Lower estrogen levels also may lead to vaginal dryness and irritation.

Mastectomy

A mastectomy is a surgical procedure that can be preformed as part of treatment for breast cancer. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, Some possible 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 (lymphedema)
  • phantom breast pain where symptoms include unpleasant itching, “pins and needles,” pressure, and throbbing

Another potential complication of a mastectomy is the psychological effects. Some patients may find it distressing to lose one or both breasts. Some may experience depression or anxiety following the surgery. Addressing these feelings through therapy, a support group, or another means is essential. Some patients may choose to have reconstructive breast surgery following a mastectomy in order to retain the same physical appearance they had prior to the mastectomy. Others may prefer to use breast prostheses to achieve the same effect.

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