Breast cancer treatment can be extremely difficult, both physically and emotionally. As your body works to fight the growth of cancer cells and adjusts to treatment, you may experience a number of symptoms. Some will be worse than others. You may feel fine one day and not so great the next. Just know that this is normal, and there are ways to cope. When you can’t make it to your doctor’s office, here are some helpful ways to manage some of the most common breast cancer symptoms at home.
Common breast cancer symptoms
Monitoring your symptoms — no matter how small or large they may be — is the first step to finding relief. Breast oncology specialist Dr. Hatem Soliman from Moffitt Cancer Center outlines breast cancer symptoms for both local cases (early breast cancer), in which the cancer hasn’t spread to other parts of the body, and metastatic cases, in which the cancer has spread.
Breast cancer symptoms for local cases:
- lump in your breast, often painless
- swollen lymph nodes in your armpit
- breast swelling
- nipple discharge and/or bleeding
- discoloration in your breast or nipple
- dimpling of the skin of your breast
Breast cancer symptoms for metastatic cases:
- bone or joint pain
- abdomen pain or swelling
- decreased appetite
- shortness of breath
- weight loss
- loss of balance
Depending on what cancer treatment your doctor prescribes, you may also experience other symptoms. These include:
- nausea and vomiting
- weight gain or weight loss
- diarrhea or constipation
- hair loss
- hormonal changes that may impact your fertility
- low blood counts
It’s important to tell your healthcare team about any symptoms you’re experiencing. Your doctor may recommend adjusting your medication dosages or adding another drug to your regimen to help with some of your symptoms. For example, your doctor may prescribe an antinausea or pain medication to relieve some side effects.
Maintaining a nutritious diet
You may experience decreased or loss of appetite as well as nausea if you’re undergoing chemo treatments for breast cancer. This can lead to fluctuations in your weight and more fatigue and weakness. One of the best ways to manage these symptoms at home is to maintain a nutritious diet, says oncology dietitian Julie Rothenberg from Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami Beach. Eating plenty of iron-rich foods like leafy greens and vegetables and plant-based protein is especially important.
“One subject every breast cancer patient asks me is about soy. I also get questions about red meat and dairy. Studies show that whole soy is okay to eat and actually may show preventative effects. I usually recommend that whole soy products (such as tofu, soy beans, tempeh) are okay to have but to refrain from soy protein isolate (especially for ER-positive women). ... I usually [recommend] an anti-inflammatory plant based diet — but include lean, healthy animal proteins, like fish, which also help add a great deal of omega-3 fatty acids.”
You can also try the following tips to keep food down and your strength up:
- Eat small, frequent meals.
- Choose room-temperature foods over very cold drinks or snacks.
- Try ginger-based snacks or drinks to help with nausea or vomiting.
- Drink liquids between meals, and remember to stay hydrated.
Exercising and deep breathing
Regular exercise can be very helpful in managing breast cancer symptoms like stress, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Aerobic exercise can help improve mood, promote sleep, strengthen bones, increase energy, and more, according to the University of California San Francisco Medical Cancer breast cancer self-care and recovery guide. You can try a combination of the following exercises for about 20 minutes a day, three times a week:
- jogging or running
“Regular exercise has a powerful effect on one’s mood by releasing pain-relieving endorphins. Always start slowly and listen to your body, eventually increasing the frequency, length, and intensity of your program,” advises Carol Michaels, founder and creator of Recovery Fitness, an exercise program created to help cancer patients recover from surgery and treatments. “Exercise training is emerging as a therapy to the negative psychological side effects associated with cancer. Make sure your exercise program is fun. Exercising with friends builds a social camaraderie. Group exercise classes provide friendship and support and motivate you to stick to a program.”
Similarly, experts suggest trying deep breathing exercises or meditation to ease breast cancer symptoms. A study found that yoga and meditation were among the top recommended therapies to relieve anxiety and mood disorders that accompany breast cancer symptoms.
If you’re new to deep breathing exercises, Michaels offers some tips to get started:
- Sit up or lie down.
- Breathe in through the nose for five seconds and out of the mouth for five seconds.
- When you exhale, press your navel towards your spine. Repeat.
Seeking mental help and support
If treatment has you feeling anxious or depressed, try joining a support group with other breast cancer patients or seeing a counselor. Talking about your experiences and connecting with those who share them can help you get through the more difficult days more easily.
Modern tools such as online patient portals, social media groups, and tele-health apps give women with breast cancer a means of finding help from the comfort of their homes. This can make a big difference in the way they manage their cancer symptoms.