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When you are being treated for breast cancer, it’s likely that you will have side effects from that treatment and, perhaps, also symptoms of the disease itself. For instance, the cancer itself can cause symptoms if the tumor puts pressure on an organ or body part and causes pain. Or the tumor may change the way that organ or body part works. The treatments used to destroy cancer cells can harm healthy cells at the same time, and that means treatment can cause side effects.
Side effects can affect each person differently. Some people have none, while others may have many. Some side effects change over time, while others stay the same. Some may be short term, while others may be permanent.
When side effects occur, they can interfere with your day-to-day life. These side effects can range from fatigue (extreme tiredness) and hot flashes to more troubling ones such as infection and swelling in your arms and hands, called lymphedema. Some side effects may worsen other symptoms. For example, if you’re depressed or not sleeping well, you may be tired. As a result, your pain may feel worse. Getting relief from one side effect may help you with others.
Almost all side effects can be treated, and sometimes there are things you can do to help prevent them, too. It's important that you tell your health care team how you feel so you can get the help you need.
Treating your cancer to get the best results is important. But your quality of life also matters. Let your doctor and nurse know if you are having any side effects or discomfort. Make sure to tell your doctor or nurse how these problems affect your day-to-day life. Your health care team is there to help you manage your symptoms as well as to treat your cancer.
It’s normal to worry about any problems you may have. You may ask yourself, “Is the cancer getting worse? Are the treatments working?” Talk with your doctor and nurse about your concerns. You also need to let them know as much about the problem as possible.
Keep a record of the following information and take it to your appointments:
What the problem is. Describe the problem (diarrhea, depression, appetite loss) that you’re concerned about. Be as specific as possible.
Where the problem is. Is there a specific area that is affected, such as your stomach or your head?
When it started. How long have you had the problem? Did you first notice it before or after a treatment session? Did you have it before you started treatment? Is it a constant problem? Do you notice that it’s worse or better at certain times? Does it come and go?
How bad it is. If you had to rank the problem on a scale from 0 to 10 (0=not bad at all, 10=worst), where would it rank?
Triggers that make the problem better or worse. Do certain activities or environments affect your symptoms?
How the problem affects your day-to-day life. Have you had to stop any activities because of the problem? Has your life changed because of the problem?
What you’re currently doing to manage the symptoms. Is it helping? Be sure to share any complementary or alternative therapies that you may be trying at home.
It might help to keep a chart of your symptoms. Yours might look something like this:
(What did you do? Did it work?)
I tried to watch a funny video, but I couldn’t pay attention. I put a cool, wet towel on my forehead and lay down in a dark room. After a nap, I felt better.
You don't have to deal with cancer and cancer treatment on your own. Dealing with your feelings is often easier as you learn more about your disease and get support from other people. Doctors, nurses, and other members of your health care team can answer questions about your concerns. Talking with friends and relatives or getting in touch with others who have had cancer can be helpful. Meeting with a social worker, counselor, or member of the clergy may also be helpful. Many cancer patients attend support groups where they share what they have learned about cancer and its treatments.
Here are some options for finding support:
Ask a nurse or social worker at your hospital or clinic to suggest a local or national group that can offer emotional support, information, financial aid, transportation, home care, or other services.
Call the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237). It has information on resources.
Call the American Cancer Society at 800- ACS-2345 (800-227-2345). This nonprofit organization helps patients and their families.