Side effects are unwanted reactions to medical treatments. If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, treating the cancer is the top priority. At the same time, side effects can impact your life in challenging ways. For many people, side effects are among the most upsetting parts of being treated for breast cancer. Still, there are many things you can do to help prevent and manage side effects.
Each person diagnosed with breast cancer is unique. So is each treatment plan, and different people experience different side effects. For example, some chemotherapies cause hair loss; others don't. And some people experience nausea or weight gain during treatment, while others may not.
Side effects can be short-term or last longer (long-term effects). Side effects can also happen at different times: during treatment, or months or years afterward. Those — the ones that show up years after treatment has ended — are called late effects.
There are many different types of side effects, and whether they happen depends on many things, including:
- The type of treatment being used
- The treatment dose
- Other treatments being taken at the same time
- How your individual body reacts to a medicine
We know that side effects don’t just impact your body — they can affect your sense of emotional wellbeing, too. You may look different than you did before your diagnosis. You may feel different physically, and how you feel about your body may change.
At LBBC, we’re here for you with support for managing side effects. Many side effects are temporary, and most can be reduced. On this page, we’ll share links to more information about different side effects: what they can feel like, when and how likely they are to occur, and the treatments that may cause them.
We’ll also share tips for talking about side effects, and ways to start a conversation with your doctors. Talking openly with your healthcare team can help.
It’s important to know that symptoms of breast cancer are different than the side effects of breast cancer treatment. For more information about symptoms of breast cancer, visit Breast cancer signs and symptoms.
On this page:
Here are some of the common side effects that can happen with different breast cancer treatments. Not everyone will experience every side effect. On each page below, we’ll walk you through tips and strategies for managing them if they do happen.
- Fear of breast cancer recurrence
- Fertility issues
- Hair loss
- Hand-foot syndrome
- Heart health issues
- High cholesterol
- Insomnia and fatigue
- Menopausal symptoms
- Mouth sores
- Nail and skin changes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Secondary cancers
- Sexual side effects
- Weight gain
- Weight loss
Breast cancer affects more than just your breasts. It can impact your quality of life: your day-to-day routines and the person you know yourself to be, emotionally and physically.
- Surgeries such as mastectomy or hair loss from chemotherapy are just some examples of how treatment can change the way you feel about your physical self — your body image.
- A breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can also have emotional side effects.
- If you are young and premenopausal (still having menstrual periods), breast cancer treatments can affect your fertility.
- Hair loss may affects the way you view your body and femininity.
Here are the most common breast cancer treatments that can cause side effects:
- Chemotherapy can cause side effects such as nausea, fatigue, and hair loss.
- HER2-targeted therapies can cause diarrhea, fatigue, and low blood cell counts.
- Radiation therapy are skin changes, breast soreness, and breast swelling.
- Surgery can cause side effects including breast pain, tightness, and swelling, and scar tissue where the incision, or cut, was made.
- Breast reconstruction side effects can sometimes include stiffness and range-of-motion issues, depending on what type of reconstruction you’re having.
- Hormonal therapy can cause side effects that include hot flashes, fatigue, and joint and bone pain.
While there can be many different side effects with different treatments, remember that not everyone experiences every side effect. Your healthcare team can help you prevent or manage the ones that do happen.
If you’re experiencing a side effect that’s concerning to you, let your doctor know. Most treatments for breast cancer have well-known side effects. Treatments that are newly approved may have rare side effects. If you’re trying a newly approved treatment and have a side effect that wasn’t expected, talk with your doctor about the possibility of reporting it to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Reporting rare side effects lets the FDA know about any unexpected risks with a new drug, and can help protect public health. To learn more, visit FDA.
Meagan Anderson was treated for stage II breast cancer when she was 21 and didn’t expect to have sexual side effects. “I …wish I had known about sexual changes. Barely anyone talks about it, but they are so huge! …I think it should be more openly discussed so that others don’t have to feel weird or like it’s taboo to talk openly about it with their providers.” Read more of Meagan’s story at What I wish I knew: A young woman’s reflections.
“After chemo, I was put on the aromatase inhibitor letrozole (Femara) and got a monthly injection with goserelin (Zoladex), both hormonal therapies. The achiness got worse. I used a heating pad, lidocaine patches, anything to try to get relief. There were times I felt I couldn’t get out of bed. …Once I started taking more vitamin D, I felt better. And when my oncologist changed me from letrozole to exemestane (Aromasin), my body felt much better,” says Kiana Wooten, who was treated for breast cancer at age 34. Read Kiana’s story in her Bone loss from treatment blog.