How To Manage Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Dr. K on 26 March 2021

Dealing With Visible Side Effects of Treatment

Breast cancer treatments come with an array of side effects, and many of them can be obvious and not easy to conceal. This can be emotionally draining on you and your loved ones. But there is a lot that can be done to manage this well.

Breast changes

You may use an external prosthesis ahead of or before breast reconstruction surgery if you’ve undergone a mastectomy. You should tuck it into your bra or use double-sided tape to adhere it to your skin.

If you decide to have one, have the following in mind:

  • Request an external prosthesis prescription from the doctor.
  • Request a referral from the oncologist to a specialty pharmacy that supplies external prostheses. They’re also available in several lingerie stores.
  • Have an appointment with a breast prosthesis specialist and set aside an hour for fitting.
  • Try a few different options to see which one feels and looks better on you.

Hair loss

Chemotherapy will destroy fast-growing cells, such as hair follicles, whether or not they are cancerous. Everyone’s hair loss is different, and it varies depending on the kind of chemotherapy you’re receiving. This side effect can also be caused by radiation and hormone treatments.

If you lose hair as a result of chemotherapy, it will most likely fall out within one or two weeks of beginning treatment. It might start to thin or fall out all at once. Hair loss is normal all over the body, not only on the head. This means you will lose your eyelashes, eyebrows, arm, leg, and pubic hair.

But before the treatment is completed, hair may start to regrow. It may be thinner, a different colour, or have a different texture.

You should prepare for hair loss to make it more manageable. Many people, for example, find it beneficial to cut their hair short before it begins to fall out. This way, you won’t lose big clumps of it in the tub or wake up with a pillow full of it.

Here are few more suggestions that might be useful:

  • Before your hair falls out, consider purchasing scarves, turbans, caps, or hats.
  • Ask your oncologist for a “cranial prosthesis" prescription.
  • To learn more about wig and hair product options, contact wig retailers and manufacturers or your hairstylist.
  • Match your hair texture or colour to wigs before starting chemotherapy. It’s also a good time to have a wig styled at this time. If you get a wig fitted early, keep in mind that it may fit differently once you lose your hair.
  • Prepare your loved ones, including children, for how you’ll look without your hair. Involving them in the selection of scarves and other items can be helpful.
  • If you decide to go bald, remember to apply sunscreen to your head whenever you’re outside in the sun. In cold climates, keep your head warm as well.

Arm swelling

This is referred to as lymphedema by doctors. Swelling of the arm on the side where breast or lymph node surgery was performed. It may even occur when you have been exposed to radiation. It’s mostly a transient side effect, but it may also be irreversible. If this is the case, it will have an effect on the quality of life.

If you catch the symptoms early enough, you may minimise the damage:

  • If your arm is swollen, don’t ignore it.
  • Avoid injuring the injured arm’s muscle.
  • When gardening or doing housework, wear gloves.
  • Extreme temperature fluctuations in the water should be avoided.
  • Cover your arm from the sun by using a sleeve.
  • Shots and IVs should not be given to the affected arm.
  • Carry light handbags and avoid wearing heavy jewels on the affected side.

You may be unable to wear those types of clothes due to the swelling. To control swelling, you may need an elastic compression sleeve as well as looser-fitting clothing.

Request a referral to a lymphedema therapist from the doctor. They will teach you how to prevent or minimise swelling with safe exercises and other techniques.

Weight gain or loss

During your care, you may experience either weight loss or weight gain. Weight loss may be caused by nausea, vomiting, or a decrease of appetite. Chemotherapy and hormone treatment, all of which may induce early menopause, can cause weight gain. However, certain other drugs, as well as changes in your lifestyle and being less active, may lead you to gain weight.

Now is not the time to go on a diet. To keep at a good weight, preserve your energy, and recover, consume nutritious, regular meals.

These ideas may be useful:

  • Limit saturated fat, sugar, alcohol, and salt while increasing protein intake.
  • If you’re nauseated, take smaller meals more often during the day.
  • Exercise will help you lose weight and keep your appetite in control. Exercise can also assist with other negative symptoms including fatigue and depression. Consult the doctor to determine the appropriate degree of activity for you.
  • To help you adhere to a routine, find an exercise partner. Only a few minutes per day will make a difference in your attitude.

Skin and nail changes

Following chemotherapy, radiation, or endocrine surgery, you might notice these.

Changes in the skin may include:

  • Redness
  • Rash
  • Dryness
  • Inflammation
  • Darkening of veins

If you expose your skin to the sun, the redness induced by radiation and some forms of chemotherapy can worsen.

Skin damage can occur if chemo drugs administered via a vein (IV) spill onto the skin.

Some skin wounds or bruises that may become contaminated should be mentioned to the doctor. In addition:

  • Before you use any skin products, consult the doctor. Lotions, powders, perfumes, creams, deodorants, body oils, and home remedies are also examples of this. Some product additives can aggravate skin reactions.
  • Detergents containing dyes and perfumes should be avoided.
  • Keep the skin clean and dry at all times. After washing, use a soft soap and pat the skin dry.
  • To cope with dry skin, apply a rich moisturiser as directed by your doctor several times a day.
  • When you’re out in the sun, wear sunscreen.
  • Wear natural materials like cotton and silk that are loose-fitting.

Darkening or discoloration of the nail beds is possible. It’s possible that the nails could snap, break, or become stiff. They can also rise off the nail bed in some situations. If this occurs, notify the doctor. It raises the risks of infection. Other nail suggestions include:

  • To avoid splitting, keep them short.
  • Artificial nails should be prevented since they will raise the likelihood of infection. It’s fine to use nail polish, as long as you remove it with a nonacetone-based remover.
  • Apply a cuticle remover cream or gel to your nails and massage it on.
  • Do not bite or break your cuticles or nails.
  • When gardening or doing housework, wear gloves.
  • Avoid getting your nails done by a professional or carry your own sanitised instruments.
  • To avoid fungal diseases, keep your hands out of the water for as long as possible.

When the treatment comes to an end, the changes in your skin and nails usually stop.


Referenced on 26.3.2021

  1. CDC: “Breast Cancer Treatment."
  2. Novartis Oncology.
  3. Pfizer Oncology.
  4. American Cancer Society.
  5. Susan Brown, Director of Education, Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
  6. Terri Ades, RN, director of cancer information, American Cancer Society.
  7. American Cancer Society: “Detailed Guide: Breast Cancer,” “What's new in breast cancer research and treatment?" “How is breast cancer treated?" “Surgery for breast cancer," “Radiation therapy for breast cancer," “Chemotherapy for breast cancer," “Hormone therapy for breast cancer," “Targeted therapy for breast cancer."
  8. Breast Cancer Network of Strength: “Losing your hair,” “Weight Gain,” “Lymphedema."
  9. “Treatment Side Effects,” “Shorter Radiation Regimen Causes Fewer Side Effects, Offers Better Quality of Life Than Traditional Regimen," “What Is Complementary Medicine?” “Depression.”
  10. “Contact Us.”
  11. Penn Medicine: “Penn Study: Majority of Women with Early-Stage Breast Cancer in U.S. Receive Unnecessarily Long Courses of Radiation."
  12. Giordano, S. Journal of Clinical Oncology, May 2012.
  13. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: “Accelerated partial breast irradiation."
  14. Susan G. Komen: “Tumor Profiling – Personalizing Treatment for Breast Cancer," “Late Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment."
  15. National Cancer Institute: “Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” “Clinical Trials for Complementary or Alternative Medicine Procedure(s).”
  16. Living Beyond Breast Cancer: “Complementary and integrative medicine for metastatic breast cancer.”
  17. “Breast Cancer – Metastatic: Palliative Care.”
  18. Mayo Clinic: “Cancer Treatment.”

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