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How Breast Cancer Treatment Can Affect Your Body

When active breast cancer treatment ends and as you begin to heal, you may notice that your body has experienced changes as a result of treatment. Some of the physical side effects of treatment will be temporary and begin to go away soon after treatment ends. Others may not go away for some time, or may occur years later. Understanding which changes are part of your body’s new “normal”, and which may need a health care provider’s attention can be challenging, and may even feel confusing at times.

Breast cancer treatment is hard on the body. Every part of you may feel drained. Some of the physical side effects may continue to affect you as you heal. Your rate of recovery will depend on the treatments you have received—and how your body has reacted to them. Perhaps you feel that it is time to get back to your normal life and feel frustrated that you can't get there as quickly as you would like. Try to be patient as healing can take time.

Taking care of your emotional well-being is another key part of your recovery. You can learn more about the emotional responses that people may experience when they are diagnosed with breast cancer and go through treatment in our Living with Breast Cancer section.

Your observations of treatment side effects are an important part of your follow-up care and should be discussed with your health care provider.

Common Side Effects

  • Mental fatigue. A lack of clarity, mental fuzziness, forgetfulness and trouble concentrating—these are side effects of chemotherapy (sometimes called “chemo fog” or “chemo brain”), other breast cancer treatments, and the stress that often accompanies illness. Although the changes may be subtle, experiencing mental fatigue can be frustrating and affect quality of life. For most people, this side effect will only last a short time and isn’t permanent. Just like the rest of your body, the more you "exercise" your brain, the better it will work.

  • Sleep disturbance (insomnia). Having difficulty sleeping may start when you are diagnosed with breast cancer and can continue when active treatment ends. Insomnia can mean having trouble falling asleep or waking up frequently through the night and can occur for many reasons; it can be a side effect of chemotherapy or related to the stress and anxiety of having a serious illness. Your health care provider can offer advice or treatment to help you manage insomnia.

  • Breast numbness, tenderness or skin sensitivity. Usually these are the result of surgery and/or radiation therapy. These side effects tend to go away quite quickly.

  • Swelling (edema). Some women feel tightness, aching or cramping in the muscle under the breast, against their rib cage. This is caused by the muscle filling with fluid as part of the healing process. The swelling usually goes away within a month of treatment, but can take as long as 2 to 3 years to completely subside. Gentle exercise may help to relieve the discomfort. Speak to your health care team for advice on exercises or referral to a physiotherapist or occupational therapist who can guide you through exercises to help reduce swelling and relieve the discomfort.

  • Firmness (fibrosis). This side effect may happen months or years after radiation therapy. It is scarring of the breast tissue that makes the breasts feel harder than normal. Speak to your health care team about treatments such as massage, physiotherapy, and stretching exercises, which can help reduce fibrosis.

  • Hair loss and re-growth. Hair loss can be a temporary side effect of chemotherapy. How soon your hair grows back will depend on how fast it normally grows. Your scalp may feel tender as your hair re-grows. Your hair may grow back the same as it was before you had chemotherapy, or it may be thinner, thicker, curlier, straighter or a different colour than it was before treatment.

  • Dry, gritty, watery, burning or tired eyes. This is usually a side effect of breast cancer medications, for example chemotherapy or tamoxifen. It can occur both during active treatment and as a long-term side effect once treatment ends. There are many treatments for dry eyes, for example the use of artificial tears (drops) or ointments to help provide moisture and lubrication to the eye. Speak to your health care provider for advice.

  • Signs of menopause. These occur usually because of chemotherapy or ceasing hormone replacement therapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. These side effects include no menstruation, hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness.

  • Bone loss. EstrogenEstrogen:
    A female sex hormone that is produced mainly in the ovaries. A woman’s levels of estrogen fluctuate throughout her life. Estrogen has been linked to the development of breast cancer and may promote the growth of cancer cells.
    plays an important role in keeping our bones dense. Many breast cancer treatments reduce estrogen levels in the body, decreasing how dense the bones are, and increasing the risk for osteoporosis. Speak to your health care team about how your bone density will be monitored and what steps you can take to keep your bones strong and reduce your risk of fractures.

  • Heart problems. Some breast cancer treatments, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapiesHER-2 targeted therapy:
    A treatment method that uses medication to target HER-2 receptors that stimulate breast cancer growth.
    , can increase the risk of developing heart problems. Other risk factors for heart problems include stress, smoking, and being overweight. Speak to your health care team about how treatment may affect your risk for heart problems, how you will be monitored, and steps that can be taken to treat or reduce the risk of heart disease.

If you are in pain or concerned about the side effects you are feeling, speak to your health care provider for advice, including alternative therapies or referrals to other health care providers. You may also find it useful to connect with other people who've experienced breast cancer by joining a support group.

As more women survive cancer treatment and live longer, more active lives, health care providers are learning more about the side effects of cancer treatment. Advancements in our knowledge and understanding of how to better anticipate, prevent, treat or manage side effects of breast cancer treatment helps enable women to have a better quality of life as they go through treatment and in the long-term.



Breastcancer.org. Treatment Side Effects. Accessed January 27, 2014.

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation-Ontario Region & Princess Margaret Hospital. (2010). Getting Back on Track. Life after breast cancer treatment. Toronto, ON: Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.