Side Effects

For many women, the worst part of breast cancer is the side effects of the treatment(s). Even with quite advanced cancer, you may have felt perfectly healthy, but the surgery and drugs, especially chemotherapy, often makes you feel very ill.

Every person’s reaction to the treatment is unique, just as everyone’s cancer and combination of treatments is different.  We list some of the most common side effects on this page. You might experience some of them or a combination of them depending on how you personally tolerate the treatments. Some of the side effects can be mild or more severe, again it varies from person to person. It is important to keep a note of side effects and report them to your healthcare providers, as your treatment may need to be changed or that other drugs, diet or activity can help.

Loss of Hair:  Depending on the chemotherapy or other therapies received there might be hair loss on your head and other parts of your body.  For many this can be a very distressing side effect.  The Canadian Cancer Society has good information and advice about coping with hair loss, including information on how your hair grows back. The Cross Cancer Institute has a wig loan service, which you can access when you are there and the Action Group has a limited selection of wigs for loan.

Some Common Side Effects

Fatigue: This is perhaps the most reported effect of treatments.  It is more than just feeling tired and sleeping can make little or no difference to this side effect.  It may last for many weeks or months.  The Canadian Cancer Society explains how fatigue can affect you and how to manage this side effect.

Arm and Shoulder Problems:  This often happens after surgery and/or radiation. Exercise is very important to help keep your upper body flexible and helps promote healing.  Ask your healthcare provider for information on exercising after surgery.  Careful exercise is important to get your range of motion back, reduce fatigue and to help prevent a condition called lymphedema.

Lymphedema: This is swelling of the arm, hand or chest which can develop soon after surgery, especially surgery to remove lymph nodes.  It can even occur 2-3 years later. It is not life-threatening, but can be very uncomfortable or painful and may be permanent. Talk to your healthcare provider immediately if you think you may be developing lymphedema or to find a registered massage therapist that provides lymphatic drain massage. 

Avoiding Infection

Cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, decreases the body’s ability to fight infections so that even the most minor infection can become serious very quickly.  It is very important to try and keep as well as possible by washing your hands frequently before eating, after touching any surfaces or visiting a medical clinic/hospital for appointments.  As well, avoid touching your face and asking friends and family who are ill not visit you until they are better.  Take your temperature regularly and make a record of it during treatments to see if there is any changes.

If you do get an infection or have a fever while you are having chemotherapy, contact your healthcare provider immediately.  It could be a sign you have a dangerous condition called neutropenia, a condition where your body has no white blood cells called neutrophils to fight an infection in your body. There is more information about neutropenia at BC Cancer.

Other Possible Side Effects

  • Dry, gritty, or burning eyes
  • Thinning of bones (osteoporosis)
  • Early menopause.
  • Loss of or changes to finger and toenails.
  • Heart problems
  • Sleeplessness
  • Depression
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Breathing problems

For more on side effects and managing the symptoms, visit the Canadian Cancer Society.

Do not think you just have to put up with side effects. Tell your healthcare team what you are experiencing when it happens.

Some side effects could seriously threaten your health so your treatment may need to be changed.

It may be that what you think are side effects are some other health issue which needs to be checked out.

It is often possible to relieve side effects with drugs, change of treatment, diet, exercise or complementary therapy. 

Sometimes side effects are temporary, and sometimes they can be permanent.