When active breast cancer treatment ends, some of its side effects may not go away for some time, and others may occur years later.
Breast cancer treatment is hard on the body. Every part of you may feel drained. Some of the physical side effects may continue to affect you as you heal. Your rate of recovery will depend on the treatments you have received—and how your body has reacted to them. Perhaps you feel that it is time to get back to your normal life and feel frustrated that you can't get there as quickly as you would like. Try to be patient and give yourself the time you need to heal.
Looking out for your emotional well-being is another key part of your recovery.
Your observations of treatment side effects are an important part of your follow-up care and should be discussed with your health care provider.
Common side effects
Aches and pains. These are usually a side effect of surgery, chemotherapy or hormone-blocking treatments. They tend to go away on their own, although this may take some time. For example, after chemotherapy a general body ache may last up to a year. Contact your health care provider if you experience any of the following:
Arm and shoulder problems. These are usually a side effect of surgery to remove axillary lymph nodes or radiation therapy in the axillary (underarm) area. Exercising the affected side after surgery should help to improve upper body mobility and flexibility. Contact your health care provider for a referral to a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or certified lymphedema therapist in these situations:
Mental fatigue. A lack of clarity, mental fuzziness, forgetfulness and trouble concentrating—these are side effects of chemotherapy, other breast cancer treatments and the stress that often accompanies illness. Just like the rest of your body, the more you "exercise" your brain, the better it will work.
Swelling (edema). Some women feel tightness, aching or cramping in the muscle under the breast, against their rib cage. This is caused by the muscle filling with fluid as part of the healing process. The swelling may go away within a month of treatment, but it may take 2 to 3 years to subside. Gentle exercise may help to relieve the discomfort. Speak to your health care team for advice on exercises or referral to a physiotherapist or occupational therapist.
Hair loss and re-growth. Hair loss is a temporary side effect of chemotherapy. How soon your hair grows back will depend on how fast it normally grows. Your scalp may feel tender as your hair re-grows. Your hair may grow back the same as it was before you had chemotherapy, or it may be thinner, thicker, curlier, straighter or a different colour than it was before treatment.
Dry, gritty, watery, burning or tired eyes. This is usually a side effect of breast cancer medications, for example Tamoxifen. There are many treatments for dry eyes. Speak to your health care provider for advice.
Signs of menopause. These occur usually because of chemotherapy or ceasing hormone replacement therapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. These side effects include no menstruation, hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness.
In premenopausal women, treatment-related menopause may be temporary. Your period may return within the first year after treatment or more than 12 months after active treatment has ended.
Even if you are showing signs of treatment-related menopause, there is still a chance that you may become pregnant. If you are sexually active with a male partner and do not wish to become pregnant, speak to your health care team about appropriate birth control methods.
In some women, treatment causes permanent menopause. Early menopause puts women at a higher risk for heart disease, stroke or osteoporosis, a disease that affects the bones and may cause them to break more easily. Speak to your health care provider about how these risks will be checked as part of your follow-up care.
As more women survive cancer treatment and live longer, more active lives, we are learning about the side effects of cancer treatment, and how to better anticipate and respond to them.
If you are in pain or concerned about the side effects you are feeling, speak to your health care provider for advice, including alternative therapies or referrals to other health care providers. You may also find it useful to connect with other people who've experienced breast cancer—by joining a support group.
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation-Ontario Region & Princess Margaret Hospital. (2010). Getting Back on Track. Life after breast cancer treatment. Toronto, ON: Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.