After you’re diagnosed with metastatic (stage IV) breast cancer, your doctor’s main goal is to slow its progression and improve your outlook. Often the first treatment doctors try for metastatic breast cancer is hormone therapy. You might also get chemotherapy, radiation, or other therapies.
While these treatments can help prolong your life, they also cause side effects that can make your day-to-day life a lot less pleasant. Common side effects from metastatic breast cancer treatment include:
- hair loss
- hot flashes
- increased risk of infections
- joint or bone pain
- loss of appetite
- mood swings
- mouth sores
- nausea and vomiting
- numbness or tingling
- vaginal dryness
These should improve once you finish treatment. But while you’re on therapy, here are 12 things you can do to relieve these side effects and feel more comfortable.
1. Conserve energy
Chemotherapy and radiation are draining. These and other cancer treatments kill healthy cells, forcing your body to work overtime to make new ones. A lack of sleep and poor nutrition — other side effects of cancer and its treatment — can also leave you weary.
To manage fatigue, get as much rest as possible. Take naps during the day if you need them. Don’t try to accomplish too much. Conserve the energy you have.
2. Up your fiber intake
Cancer treatment can leave you constipated, with hard stools that are difficult to pass. Bowel movements might not be at the top of your list of concerns right now, but when you can’t go for days at a time, you’ll feel bloated, crampy, and miserable.
To relieve constipation, get more fiber in your diet from fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain foods or take a fiber supplement.
3. Make time for exercise
Fatigue from cancer and its treatments may make exercising seem impossible, but if you get some activity in every day, you’ll feel better and have more energy. Go for a walk, do yoga or tai chi, or pedal on a stationary bike.
Exercise also helps you sleep better, improves your appetite, and relieves constipation.
Start with just 10 minutes of fitness a day, and work your way up to 30 minutes or more as your strength returns.
4. Divide up your meals
Cancer treatments can affect your appetite and cause mouth sores that make eating more difficult and painful. Because you need proper nutrition to help your body heal, try to eat smaller meals that are high in nutrients and protein. Include foods like peanut butter, whole-milk yogurt, milkshakes, and granola. You can also add nutritional drinks and snacks throughout the day.
5. Drink more fluid
As previously mentioned, some cancer treatments can cause constipation. Drinking more water and other fluids throughout the day will make your stools looser and easier to pass.
You also need more water if you have the opposite problem. Diarrhea — another common treatment side effect — can dehydrate you if you don’t drink enough.
Drinking extra water or a soft drink like ginger ale can also help relieve nausea.
6. Be gentle
Chemotherapy and radiation both damage hair follicles and cause hair loss. Cancer treatment can also make you bleed more easily.
During this time, wash your hair less often. Avoid pulling on it or using excess heat from a flat iron or curling iron. Brush it softly using a wide-toothed comb.
Be gentle on your teeth — brush them with a soft toothbrush. And switch from a disposable or straight razor to an electric one to avoid nicks.
7. Use heat or ice
Heat and cold are useful for the aches and pains that can occur during treatment. Use whichever one feels best on your headache or sore joints. Just make sure to cover the ice pack with a cloth, and keep the heating pad at a low setting to avoid burning your skin.
8. Dress in loose-fitting clothing
Hot flashes are common in women who are going through menopause, but it can also be a side effect of treatments for breast cancer. Taking estrogen can relieve hot flashes. But this hormone therapy isn’t recommended for women who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, because it can increase the risk of recurrence. To stay cool without medicine, wear loose-fitting clothes in layers that you can remove if you get too hot.
9. Wash your hands
Some cancer treatments reduce the number of infection-fighting white blood cells in your body. Without these cells, you’re more vulnerable to viruses and other germs.
To avoid an infection, wash your hands often with soap and warm water. Sing “Happy Birthday” twice to make sure you wash for long enough.
10. Try acupuncture
Acupuncture uses very fine needles to stimulate various pressure points throughout your body. Clinical trials have shown that this alternative therapy relieves nausea and vomiting brought about by chemotherapy. It may also help with other treatment side effects, such as hot flashes, fatigue, and dry mouth.
11. Keep a notebook
In the notes section of your smartphone or with pen and paper, jot down all the side effects you’re experiencing from treatment. Once your doctor knows your symptoms, they can recommend the right methods to manage them.
You can also use your notebook to write yourself reminders if “chemo brain” — the fuzziness some people get after chemotherapy treatment — strikes.
12. Find support
Cancer can flip your entire world upside down. Undergoing treatment becomes your main focus, taking priority over work, family, and everything else that was once central to your daily life. It can make you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and incredibly sad.
Don’t try to get through this alone. Lean on the people who are closest to you — your family and good friends. And seek support from professionals like psychologists and counselors who are trained to work with people who have cancer.