Breast Health

Side Effects Linger After Breast Cancer Treatment

In a study that followed breast cancer patients after treatment, more than 60 percent had at least one treatment-related complication up to six years after diagnosis. Thirty percent had at least two complications.

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Some of the complications included skin reactions to radiation therapy, weight gain, fatigue, surgery-related issues, upper body symptoms and physical limitations, and lymphedema - a painful condition that causes swelling in the arm or chest.

Study leader Kathryn Schmitz, Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania, says the study results show that the health care profession can no longer take for granted that the side effects a woman is experiencing will end when her breast cancer treatment ends.

Widespread problem

"Our work provides the first accounting of the true magnitude of the post-treatment problems suffered by breast cancer patients, and serves as a call to action for proper monitoring and rehabilitation services to care for them," Dr. Schmitz says.

For the study, the researchers followed 287 breast cancer patients in Australia over about six years. The women were assessed at six, 12, and 18 months after treatment, and then again at six years. At the six-year point, more than 60 percent had had at least one side effect that could have been helped in rehab. About 40 percent of the women had no side effects after about a year.

"The scope of these complications is shocking and upsetting, but a ready solution for many of them already exists in rehabilitative exercise," Dr. Schmitz says.

Obstacles to monitoring

Dr. Schmitz and her colleagues say that several factors may prevent proper monitoring of complications in breast cancer survivors. These factors include different treatment approaches at different hospitals; doctors and patients who believe that side effects are "normal" or "expected," and too few referrals for physical therapy after treatment.

The study was published in the journal Cancer.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Cancer Society - Physical Side Effects

National Cancer Institute - General Information About Lymphedema

National Cancer Institute - Managing Physical Effects

June 2012

What Is Lymphedema?

If you have a lumpectomy or mastectomy, the surgeon may remove some or all of the lymph nodes under your arm. Afterward, your arm may swell because the normal drainage pattern in the lymph nodes has been disturbed. Radiation may also damage lymph nodes and cause your arm to swell. This swelling, caused by too much lymph fluid, is called lymphedema.

In addition to your arm, you may see swelling in your chest or breast area on the side of surgery.

If you notice any swelling after your surgery, be sure to tell your doctor. It can be treated by a trained specialist, often a physical therapist.

Treatment may include a compression sleeve, special exercises, bandaging techniques, massage, and proper skin care. Your specialist might use a technique known as MLD, or manual lymphatic drainage. This combines massage, skin care, compression, and exercise to reduce the swelling associated with lymphedema.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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