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Managing the Emotions and General Side Effects of Treatment

Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is difficult to handle emotionally and physically, in and of itself. The side effects of treatment can add to this difficulty and may become overwhelming for many patients. Planning for them and learning effective ways to manage them will provide an additional level of confidence during treatment.

The American Cancer Society recommends that all patients keep a journal or log of their side effects and experiences during treatment.1 Doing this will help you and your treatment team identify any patterns. If there are potentially preventable side effects, they can be treated prior to therapy.

Emotions

Patients typically experience a number of emotions when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. Many have fear for their future, fear that the treatment will be ineffective or that they will not be able to handle treatment. Many worry that the cancer will come back sometime in their future.2

Some patients may express confusion about treatment due to a lack of understanding about their options. Talking with other breast cancer patients and survivors and researching information about cancer treatment will help relieve some of this anxiety. Maintaining a strong support group will also help to minimize stress during treatment.

Various emotions about the future, relationships, intimacy, sexuality and sexual desirability are all completely normal. If you are able to talk openly with partners, spouses and family, they may be able to help you deal with these emotions.

Mental Health

When stress is significant and prolonged, it can lead to a decline in mental health. Some patients develop clinical depression and anxiety receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer. Mental health conditions can actually affect physical recovery and progress throughout treatment. Common signs of clinical depression are sleep changes, mood swings, feelings of grief, helplessness or hopelessness, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. If you have at least three of these, talk with a therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist to determine if medications might help during your treatment for breast cancer.1

Also, stay as active as possible, engage and interact with others, find time to relax and enjoy family and friends. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health during treatment.

Physical Side Effects

Breast cancer treatment can have mild to severe physical side effects. Not all patients will have every named side effect during treatment and each individual will experience different side effects to variable degrees. Some people have only one or two issues while others may have several of side effects listed below.

Common physical side effects of breast cancer treatment include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in skin and nails
  • Thinning of the hair or hair loss
  • Pain
  • Appetite changes
  • Constipation and diarrhea
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Difficulties with cognition, memory and concentration
  • Muscle and joint weakness
  • Sexual intimacy problems
  • Hot flashes
  • Early menopause

Most of the physical side effects will subside as you get further and further away from chemotherapy, hormone therapy or radiation treatment.3 Different members of your treatment team, such as your surgeon or oncologist, should explain any potential side effects associated with their treatment.

It is essential to keep in mind that many side effects can be easily managed with medication, lifestyle changes and alternative types of treatment to prevent them from having a negative on recovery.

References

1 American Cancer Society. (2004).  A Breast Cancer Journey: Your Personal Guidebook. Atlanta: American Cancer Society.

2 van den Beuken-van Everdingen, M. H., Peters, M. L., de Rijke, J. M., et al. (2008). Concerns of former breast cancer patients about disease recurrence: a validation and prevalence study. Psycho-Oncology , 1137-1145.

3 Gartner, R., Jensen, M., Nielsen, J., Ewertz, M., et al. (2009). Prevalence of and factors associated with persistent pain following breast cancer surgery. Journal of the American Medical Association , 1985-1992.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.