Women's Health

How to Cope with Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment

Breast cancer chemotherapy side effects vary from person to person, and depend on radiation dose and frequency among many other factors. Your physical and mental health also play a role in how symptoms may affect you. Everyone is different, so there is no way to predict who may or may not experience certain side effects. And everyone prefers to experience their treatment in a different way. Some women prefer to zone out and listen to music, while others find comfort in speaking with those around them.

If you are experiencing severe side effects, speak with your cancer care team and address any medical concerns. They can tell you more about your treatment, change your schedule or even change the type of treatment you are receiving. With their guidance, it is possible to maximize your quality of life while being treated for breast cancer. Most side effects go away in time; however, there are a few that may take several months or longer to go away completely. In the meantime, there are ways to reduce the discomfort they may be causing.


Fatigue is a feeling of extreme tiredness that goes beyond just feeling sleepy or weak. Speak with your doctor about treating fatigue with small lifestyle changes or medications if necessary. Moderate exercise acts directly on the central nervous system and it is a great way to increase energy and reduce fatigue.

Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are side effects that are typically associated with chemotherapy. Your doctor can prescribe medications which will help you manage these side effects. He or she may even recommend working with a dietitian, who can provide insightful tips on how to eat right and how to stay hydrated during chemotherapy.

Bone loss

Certain hormonal therapies and chemotherapies may cause bone loss, increasing the risk of bone fractures. Speak with your doctor about any prescription and over-the-counter medications that may help improve your bone health. He or she may even recommend certain exercises that help strengthen your muscles.


There are several medications that can help manage and alleviate pain. Different approaches may be required for controlling pain, which is why it is important to be as detailed as possible when describing your pain to your doctor.

Chemo brain

Even though its exact cause is not known, chemo brain can happen at any time when you have cancer. It is a mental fog that causes problems with memory, attention, and concentration. It is commonly reported by people who receive chemotherapy There are several things that you can do to help improve your mental capabilities and manage chemo brain. Such coping methods include: getting plenty of rest, eating lots of vegetables, exercising on a regular basis, doing word puzzles, and keeping a journal to track appointments and schedules. Keeping your mind and body active is the best way to fight chemo brain's effects on your daily life.


Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for breast cancer can stop your body from making white blood cells, increasing your risk of developing infections. It is important to be proactive with your cancer care team in developing an infection control plan. Your doctor may even prescribe medications to reduce your risk of infection and improve your quality of life during chemotherapy.


Lymphedema is a chronic condition in which excess fluid builds up in the tissues and causes painful swelling, usually in an arm or leg. Your doctor can give you tips to reduce and even prevent the swelling, such as: wearing a specially fitted compression sleeve to help drain the excess fluid, performing light exercises, getting a massage, and undergoing complete decongestive therapy (CDT). He or she may even refer you to a special exercise program that is taught by a trained physical therapist and is known to help reduce such side effects. After your cancer treatment is over, it's important to keep up with followup appointments to prevent conditions like lymphedema.

Peripheral neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a common side effect of certain cancer treatments. It is a result of damage to the peripheral nerves and often causes pain, weakness, and numbness in the hands and feet. It can also affect other areas of the body. Speak with your doctor about taking medications for pain relief or even seeing a neurologist, a specialist in peripheral neuropathy and pain management.

Loss of appetite

Breast cancer treatment can diminish your appetite, making it harder to get the nutrition you need. In such instances, make sure you drink plenty of water, try an “instant breakfast” mix, or even eat smaller meals during the day instead of three large ones. A dietitian can be a crucial part of your breast cancer care team for exactly this reason. While your body is being compromised by chemotherapy, it's still possible to get all of the vitamins you need.

Mouth and dental problems

Chemotherapy can cause a sore mouth or gums. You may even develop mouth ulcers or a dry mouth. Brush your teeth with a soft toothbrush and keep your mouth as moist as possible using alcohol-free mouthwashes. Avoid hard foods, citrus fruits, and spicy or salty things. You may even want to check with your doctor or dentist about certain medications and products that can ease mouth soreness.

Skin and nail changes

Certain chemotherapy medications can cause skin dryness, sensitivity, or skin rashes. You may even notice your nails becoming more brittle and cracked. Moisturize very often to keep your skin hydrated and use a high-SPF sunscreen during hot weather. Consult with a dermatologist to see which natural moisturizers you can use on your skin. Coconut oil is a popular choice.


Chemotherapy may lead to infertility if it causes changes within the ovaries. This side effect is more common in women over the ages of 35. If you plan on having children, address any fertility concerns with your cancer care team before you start your chemotherapy treatment. They may refer you to a fertility specialist to discuss your options for preserving your fertility. More and more women are choosing to freeze their eggs before cancer treatment.

Weight gain/weight loss

The shock of a breast cancer diagnosis and stress on your body can contribute to weight gain or loss during treatment. If you are concerned that you have gained or lost too much weight, speak with your doctor. Together, you can develop a proper plan for eating and dieting and figure out how to reach your healthy weight.


Diarrhea is a condition in which you experience loose and watery stools frequently during the day. Symptoms associated with this condition include bloating, cramps, and nausea. There are several breast cancer treatments that can cause diarrhea, of which the most common is chemotherapy. Diarrhea is also a common side effect of several pain medications. In order to alleviate diarrhea during breast cancer treatment, it is recommended that you drink plenty of water, eat foods that have a lot of potassium, eat foods that are high in sodium, avoid caffeinated beverages, and limit your intake of milk and milk products.

Longer-term effects

For some people, side effects may carry on for some time. Others effects may even develop months or years after the chemotherapy has ended. These longer-term effects are rare, but they can occur. Speak with your doctor about the benefits of treating your breast cancer with chemotherapy versus the risk of these rare effects occurring. Your doctor will help you choose what is best for your overall health.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in life-altering treatments against breast cancer – surgery, hormonal therapy, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. However, such treatments may cause unwanted side effects and they tend to depend greatly on the amount of medication you are taking, the diet plan you are on, the length of your treatment, and your overall health.

While your body is recovering from such treatments, there are certain coping methods that can help minimize or alleviate many of the above listed side effects. Your health plan should include treatment for symptoms and side effects, so take the time to learn about all of your treatment options. Talk with your cancer care team about any method you are considering, the possible side effects associated with it, and let them help you make an informed decision.