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Home > Comman Type of Cancer > Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatments

Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatments

Breast Cancer Treatments: Chemotherapy

As with radiation, chemotherapy affects normal as well as cancer cells. The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on the specific drugs and the dose. In general, anticancer drugs affect rapidly dividing cells. These include blood cells, which fight infection, help the blood to clot, and carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When blood cells are affected, patients are more likely to get infections, may bruise or bleed easily, and may feel unusually weak and very tired. Rapidly dividing cells in hair roots and cells that line the digestive tract may also be affected. As a result, side effects may include loss of hair, poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, or mouth and lip sores. Many of these side effects can now be controlled, thanks to new or improved drugs. Side effects generally are short-term and gradually go away. Hair grows back, but it may be different in color and texture.

Some anticancer drugs can damage the ovaries. If the ovaries fail to produce hormones, the woman may have symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Her periods may become irregular or may stop, and she may not be able to become pregnant. Other long-term side effects are quite rare, but there have been cases in which the heart is weakened, and second cancers such as leukemia (cancer of the blood cells) have occurred.

Women who are still menstruating may still be able to get pregnant during treatment. Because the effects of chemotherapy on an unborn child are not known, it is important for a woman to talk with her doctor about birth control before treatment begins. After treatment, some women regain their ability to become pregnant, but in women over the age of 35, infertility is likely to be permanent.

Breast Cancer Treatments: Hormonal Therapy

The side effects of hormonal therapy depend largely on the specific drug or type of treatment. Tamoxifen is the most common hormonal treatment. This drug blocks the cancer cells' use of estrogen but does not stop estrogen production. Tamoxifen may cause hot flashes, vaginal discharge or irritation, nausea, and irregular periods. Women who are still menstruating and having irregular periods may become pregnant more easily when taking tamoxifen. They should discuss birth control methods with their doctor.

Serious side effects of tamoxifen are rare. It can cause blood clots in the veins, especially in the legs and in the lungs, and in a small number of women, it can slightly increase the risk of stroke. Also, tamoxifen can cause cancer of the lining of the uterus. Any unusual vaginal bleeding should be reported to the doctor. The doctor may do a pelvic exam, as well as a biopsy of the lining of the uterus, or other tests. (This does not apply to women who have had a hysterectomy, surgery to remove the uterus.)

Young women whose ovaries are removed to deprive the cancer cells of estrogen experience menopause immediately. Their symptoms are likely to be more severe than symptoms associated with natural menopause.

Breast Cancer Treatments: Biological Therapy

The side effects of biological therapy differ with the types of substances used, and from patient to patient. Rashes or swelling where the biological therapy is injected are common. Flu-like symptoms also may occur.

Herceptin may cause these and other side effects, but these effects generally become less severe after the first treatment. Less commonly, Herceptin can also cause damage to the heart that can lead to heart failure. It can also affect the lungs, causing breathing problems that require immediate medical attention. For these reasons, women are checked carefully for heart and lung problems before taking Herceptin. Patients who do take it are watched carefully during treatment.
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