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Treatments for breast cancer can have short- and long-term side effects. But many remedies can help if you experience any.

According to the American Cancer Society, women in the United States have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their life.

There are many treatment options for breast cancer. However, they can have side effects.

Keep reading to learn more about the short- and long-term side effects of breast cancer treatment and ways to manage them.

Learn more about breast cancer.

There are several treatments for breast cancer. Let’s explore each of them briefly.


Surgery is often one of the first treatment steps for people with breast cancer. Depending on the location and size of the tumor, surgery may remove some breast tissue (breast-conserving surgery) or all of the breast tissue (mastectomy).

Side effects of surgery to treat breast cancer

Short-term side effects may include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • blood clots
  • shoulder stiffness
  • wound infection
  • bleeding
  • seroma (fluid collection around the surgical area)
  • hematoma (blood collection around the surgical area)

Long-term side effects may include:

  • scarring
  • chronic breast pain
  • axillary web syndrome
  • lymphedema (swelling from lymph fluid buildup)
  • decreased strength
  • fatigue
  • cognitive dysfunction
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • concerns about self-image and sexuality


Chemotherapy (chemo) drugs aim to kill cancer cells or slow their growth. There are several situations where chemo may be used for breast cancer:

  • before breast cancer surgery to shrink a tumor (neoadjuvant chemo)
  • after breast cancer surgery to help lower the chances of the cancer coming back (adjuvant chemo)
  • when breast cancer has spread (metastasized) to more distant tissues

Side effects of chemotherapy to treat breast cancer

Short-term side effects may include:

  • fatigue
  • pain
  • hair loss
  • headaches
  • neuropathy (numbness, pain, or tingling)
  • mouth and throat sores
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • nausea and vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • weight changes
  • shaking or trembling
  • balance problems
  • difficult walking
  • changes in vision or hearing
  • difficulty concentrating

Long-term side effects may include:

  • blood disorders, like leukemia
  • heart changes, such as:
    • cardiomyopathy
    • congestive heart failure (CHF)
    • myocarditis
    • coronary artery disease
    • arrhythmia
    • pericarditis
    • changes to heart valves
  • infertility
  • early menopause
  • nerve damage

Hormone therapy

Some breast cancers have receptors that grow in response to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Hormone therapy aims to block the activity of these receptors, preventing the cancer cells from growing.

Common hormone therapy drugs include:

Side effects of hormone therapy to treat breast cancer

Short-term side effects include:

  • decreased sex drive
  • fatigue
  • hot flashes
  • menstrual changes
  • nausea or vomiting
  • mood changes
  • sweating
  • vaginal dryness or discharge

Long-term side effects include:

  • blood clots
  • brittle bones
  • cardiovascular risks
  • memory changes
  • depression
  • vision changes
  • weight gain

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy drugs are designed to hone in on specific biomarkers that are on the outside or inside of cancer cells. HER2 is an example of a biomarker that’s targeted by many of these drugs.

Common drugs used for targeted therapy include:

Side effects of targeted therapy to treat breast cancer

Short-term side effects may include:

  • diarrhea
  • poor blood clotting
  • slow wound healing
  • high blood pressure
  • fatigue
  • mouth sores
  • nail changes
  • loss of hair color
  • rash
  • dry skin

Long-term side effects may include:

  • liver problems
  • hole in digestive organs, like the:
    • esophagus
    • stomach
    • small intestine
    • large bowel
    • rectum
    • gallbladder

How common are short-term side effects?

Short-term side effects from breast cancer treatments are common.

For example, a 2017 study found that 86% of people receiving chemo for breast, lung, or colorectal cancer reported at least one side effect. The most common were:

  • fatigue
  • diarrhea
  • constipation

Short-term side effects from radiation therapy vary from person to person. They typically start during treatment and continue for 2–4 weeks after treatment is done. Side effects from radiation therapy can include:

  • tiredness
  • weakness
  • sensitive skin
  • breast swelling
  • loss of armpit hair
  • difficulty moving the arm and shoulder
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Immunotherapy boosts your immune system’s ability to respond to cancer cells. While there are a few types of immunotherapy for cancer, a type called an immune checkpoint inhibitor is one that doctors may use for some breast cancers.

Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is a common immunotherapy drug.

Side effects of immunotherapy to treat breast cancer

There are many types of immunotherapy. The specific side effects depend on the medications you receive.

Short-term side effects may include:

  • skin reactions at the needle site
  • other skin changes
  • flu-like symptoms
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • trouble breathing
  • blood pressure changes
  • swelling and weight gain from retaining fluid
  • heart palpitations
  • sinus congestion
  • diarrhea
  • infection
  • organ inflammation

Long-term side effects may include:

  • diabetes
  • hepatitis
  • hypophysitis (inflammation of the pituitary gland)
  • myocarditis
  • impaired kidney function
  • overactive or underactive thyroid
  • nervous system problems, such as:
    • muscle weakness
    • numbness
    • trouble breathing

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high energy radiation to kill cancer cells. Doctors often use it after breast cancer surgery to help reduce the chances of cancer returning.

Side effects of radiation therapy to treat breast cancer

Short-term side effects may include:

  • fatigue
  • hair loss
  • skin changes
  • edema (swelling)
  • tenderness

Long-term side effects may include:

  • changes in breast size
  • tanning or other skin discoloration around the area of treatment
  • lymphedema
  • weakened ribs
  • heart or lung problems
  • nerve damage
  • secondary cancers, in rare cases

Which treatment is right for you?

The type of treatment your care team recommends depends on several factors, including:

  • the specific type of breast cancer you have
  • the stage of the cancer
  • how fast the cancer is growing
  • whether certain biomarkers are present on or in cancer cells
  • whether you’ve experienced menopause
  • your age and overall health
  • your preferences
  • prior treatments you’ve received (some treatments are only approved for people who have or haven’t had other treatments)
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Breast cancer treatments can lead to a wide variety of short-term side effects. Because of this, it’s typical not to know where to start when it comes to managing them.

Here are some strategies you can use to help cope with the short-term side effects of breast cancer treatments.


Fatigue is a very common side effect of breast cancer treatment. To curb it, you can try the following:

Digestive side effects

The digestive side effects of breast cancer treatment can make it difficult or painful to eat. To help out with this, try some of the following:

  • Listen to your body and avoid foods that make you feel worse.
  • Eat several small meals throughout the day instead of a few large ones.
  • If solid foods are unappetizing or hard to keep down, focus on liquids, such as smoothies or soups, that provide calories and protein.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Select high fiber foods to help with constipation and low fiber foods to help with diarrhea.
  • Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medication.
  • For mouth sores, try foods that are soft and at room temperature or cooler. Also, avoid spicy, acidic, or sugary foods that can cause mouth irritation.


Pain related to breast cancer treatment can come in a variety of forms. These can include body aches and pains, headaches, and nerve pain. Pain can be constant or come and go.

Treatment depends on the type of pain.

If you’re experiencing pain, ask your doctor about medications that can help ease it. It may also help to try out techniques that aim to help you relax and center yourself, such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.

Hair loss

Losing your hair during your cancer treatment can be distressing. However, not every breast cancer treatment is associated with this side effect.

Ask your doctor whether hair loss happens with your specific treatment. If so, you may choose to wear a wig as you begin to lose hair. Try picking out a wig before your treatment so it can be matched as best as possible to your natural hair.

After you’ve lost your hair, take steps to protect your scalp. Try to stay out of direct sunlight, and avoid places that are either very hot or very cold.

Skin rashes or reactions

Some breast cancer treatments can cause uncomfortable rashes or skin reactions. Follow these tips to help ease these side effects:

  • Aim to keep your skin clean and dry.
  • Focus on short showers in water that’s cool or room temperature.
  • Gently pat yourself dry instead of wiping or rubbing with a towel.
  • Moisturize after showering.
  • Use skin care products that don’t irritate your skin.
  • Wear clothes made from soft, breathable fabrics.
  • Stay out of direct sunlight. Wear protective clothing when you do go outside, and use high SPF sunscreen if your treatment causes sun sensitivity.

Low blood cell counts

Low blood cell counts can lead to anemia, increased infections, and easy bleeding.

For anemia, try to:

  • get plenty of sleep
  • reduce your daily activities or ask others to help you out as needed
  • eat a balanced diet

To prevent contracting an infection:

To address easy bleeding or bruising:

  • Take extra care going about your daily activities, especially when they come with a risk of nicks, scrapes, and cuts.
  • Remove trip hazards around your home. Add padding to sharp furniture edges.
  • Avoid contact sports or strenuous exercise that could lead to injury.

Sexual side effects

Sexual side effects from breast cancer treatments can include:

  • vaginal dryness
  • hot flashes
  • changes in menstrual periods

Talk with your doctor about whether it’s OK to have sex during your treatment. If so, be sure to take steps to prevent becoming pregnant, as some cancer treatments can be very harmful to a developing fetus.

Some medications can help with vaginal dryness, so ask your doctor about them. It may also be helpful to use a lubricant during penetrative sex.

Dressing in layers that you can easily remove can help greatly when a hot flash comes on. It may also be beneficial to keep a handheld fan on you as well.

According to the National Cancer Institute, some overall lifestyle strategies can help manage certain types of long-term side effects. These can include doing things like:

  • Eating a balanced diet: Focus on a diet that’s high in fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein sources. Ask your doctor for dietary pointers that are tailored to your specific situation.
  • Exercising: It’s still important to get regular exercise that includes both cardio and weight-bearing exercise. Talk with your doctor about the types of activities that would be appropriate for you.
  • Getting enough sleep: Set up a sleeping and waking schedule. Also, create an environment that promotes good sleep by making sure it’s dark, quiet, and a comfortable temperature.
  • Reducing stress levels: Take steps to lower your stress levels. Some examples of things to try include doing yoga, curling up with a book, and doing a hobby you enjoy.
  • Limiting alcohol: Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all.
  • Avoiding smoking: Aim to avoid using cigarettes and other tobacco-based products.

Additionally, you can manage many of the long-term effects of breast cancer treatment by working with your doctor. This can include things like:

Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you have any concerning symptoms in the weeks, months, or years after your breast cancer treatment concludes.

It may be beneficial to seek out support resources while you’re being treated for breast cancer. These can provide you with more information, access to assistance, and ways to connect with others who get it.

Some examples of support resources to check out include the following:

Another great resource is your cancer care team. They can point you toward resources or support groups that are associated with your treatment center or are available in your area.

Breast cancer treatment can cause many side effects. Short-term side effects happen while you’re undergoing treatment. Long-term side effects can come on months to years after your treatment ends.

Experiencing treatment-related side effects can be challenging. However, there are a variety of strategies you can use to help manage them.

Your doctor and care team are there to help. Be sure to ask them about the potential side effects specific to your breast cancer treatment and the things you can do to help address them.