Psychological and Physical Problems

Breast cancer patients may experience psychological and physical side effects from their breast cancer treatment. These include:

  • Sleep disorders
  • Changes in memory and concentration
  • Skin and nail changes

Sleep Disorders

Approximately 61% of breast cancer patients report that they experience some degree of sleep disturbance during chemotherapy or radiation therapy. These problems included night sweats, coughing, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, restless legs, snoring, and excessive nocturia, or getting up to urinate during the night. Poor quality of sleep can lead to decreased overall health and quality of life.1

Sleep problems can be managed with a variety of medications but make sure to ask your doctor before trying any of them, as they may not be compatible with your other medications. Other options include using relaxation techniques prior to sleep, avoiding stimulants such as caffeine within three hours before bedtime, and making sure to exercise.

Changes in Memory and Concentration

Some patients experience difficulty with memory and concentration during chemotherapy, which is sometimes called “chemobrain”. Previously is was thought to be a result of stress during therapy, but new imaging technology has shown that there are actually neurological changes in the brain as a response to chemotherapy.2

Other factors that contribute to memory problems and inability to concentrate are depression, stress, sleep deprivation and hormonal changes. Making to-do lists, playing memory recall games and keeping information in easily accessible areas will help improve your memory and concentration.

Skin and Nail Changes 

Fingernails and toenails often change during chemotherapy, becoming brittle and dark or even banding. During treatment, avoid artificial nails since the glue on already brittle nails can cause them to tear or break easily.

The skin can become dry during chemotherapy and radiation can cause significant skin changes. Radiation therapy often causes redness, dryness, itching and fragile skin in the treatment area. Some of these skin changes can be permanent.4 Complications of these changes include decreased sensation and increased risk of infection.


1 Fortner, B. V., Stepanski, E. J., Wang, S. C., et al. (2002). Sleep and Quality of Life in Breast Cancer Patients. Journal of Pain and Symtom Management , 471-480.

2 Bender, C. M., Ergyn, F. S., Rosenzweig, M. Q., et al. (2005). Symptom Clusters in Breast Cancer Across 3 Phases of the Disease. Cancer Nursing , 219-225.

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

4 Gengler, C., Coindre, J.-M., Leroux, A., et al. (2007). Vascular proliferations of the skin after radiation therapy for breast cancer: Clinicopathologic analysis of a series in favor of a benign process. Cancer , 1584-1598

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