Breast Cancer Treatment Causes Severe Side Effects in Many Women

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Just about all treatments for breast cancer cause some type of side effects. Surgery can cause pain and lymphedema. Hormonal therapy can cause hot flashes, joint pain, and bone thinning. Chemotherapy can cause hair loss, diarrhea, neuropathy, fatigue, and mouth sores. Radiation therapy can cause itching, soreness, and peeling skin. Targeted therapies can cause side effects that are similar to chemotherapy, including vomiting, fatigue, and diarrhea.

The good news is that most side effects can be treated and most ease after treatment is completed.

Most of the information we have on how often side effects happen come from clinical trials and insurance claims for treatment. Still, researchers suspect that there are women who have side effects but don’t talk to their doctors about them.

A survey of women from California and Georgia who were diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer found that nearly half of them had at least one severe or very severe side effect.

The research was published online on Jan. 24, 2017 by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Treatment-associated toxicities reported by patients with early-stage invasive breast cancer.”

To do the study, the researchers surveyed 1,945 women who lived in California and Georgia and had been diagnosed with early-stage invasive breast cancer. The surveys were done between 2013 and 2014.

The women were asked if they had seven common side effects of breast cancer treatment and to rate the severity of the side effects:

  • nausea/vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • pain
  • arm swelling
  • shortness of breath
  • skin irritation

The survey also asked the women what kind of help they sought for the side effects, including discussing at a routine doctor’s visit, to scheduling a special doctor’s appointment, to visiting an emergency room.

The results:

  • 93% of the women said they had at least one of the seven side effects
  • 45% of the women said they had at least one severe or very severe side effect; pain, skin irritation, and constipation were the most common severe or very severe side effects
  • 9% of the women said they had unscheduled doctor’s visits because of side effects
  • 5% of the women said they had visited the emergency room or a hospital because of side effects

Women were more likely to have more severe side effects if they:

  • were treated with chemotherapy
  • were treated with both chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • were Latina
  • had bilateral mastectomy

"As an oncologist, I knew from my clinical practice that more women were suffering than is generally reported in clinical trials," said Allison Kurian, M.D., M.Sc., associate professor of medicine and of health research and policy at Stanford University and one of the study’s authors. "Often, women suffer in silence, afraid to tell their providers about how bad things really are for fear that their treatments may be halted. We need to change that."

Kurian also said that it’s important for doctors to talk to their patients about side effects. That way, women will know what to do if they have nausea, pain, skin irritation, or other side effects.

To help women being treated for breast cancer, the researchers are developing tools to help women understand the side effects caused by different treatments and options for managing side effects.

If you’re being treated for breast cancer and are having side effects, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Don’t suffer in silence. There are treatments that can help ease side effects. For more information on the side effects caused by breast cancer treatment and steps you can take to manage them, visit the Breastcancer.org Treatment Side Effects page.



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