Side effects from breast cancer treatment can be brutal. And when you’re in the midst of chemo, radiation, or drug therapy, it’s easy to think the nightmare is never going to end.
But take heart as the majority of treatment side effects will disappear with time. Sure, symptoms such as numbness and tingling in your chest after a mastectomy or a breast with a new shape following radiation are likely permanent. But others will either fade significantly or disappear entirely.
This isn’t to say though that you’ll feel 100 percent once you finish treatment. Chemotherapy drugs can take several months to completely leave your system. Your body needs weeks or even months to recover from surgery. In many cases, patience is never more of a virtue than when you’re waiting to discover your “new normal” after breast cancer treatment.
Here are 10 side effects that you shouldn’t worry too much about as they should disappear with time.
Patients undergoing breast cancer treatment commonly experience fatigue. It can range from a simple lack of endurance to an overwhelming exhaustion that makes simple activities difficult.
Thankfully, it’s a side effect that will begin to disappear once treatment ends. You can help your recovery along by exercising enough so that you feel refreshed -- rather than exhausted -- after you’ve finished and showered.
2. Hair loss
The vast majority of women who’ve suffered chemotherapy-induced hair loss will regrow at least some of it back within 3 to 6 months after their treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your new hair may be quite different as it regrows – thick if it used to be thin or curly if it was formerly straight – but at least you’ll no longer be bald.
3. Joint pain
The principal side effect of aromatase inhibitors, the long-term hormone therapy taken by most post-menopausal survivors, is joint pain. For some women, the pain is so severe that they’re unable to complete the full course of treatment, which can last up to 10 years. The good news? The pain disappears within weeks of stopping the drugs.
4. Nausea and other digestive disturbances
Chemotherapy is notorious for wreaking havoc on your digestive system. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation are all possibilities depending on exactly which “chemo cocktail” you’re given. Fortunately, there are very effective drugs that can ease these side effects during treatment. And they all disappear once chemo is completed.
5. Weight gain
It’s not unusual for a woman to gain 15 to 20 pounds as a result of breast cancer, particularly in the months after treatment ends. If you’re young and still having periods, exercise and counting calories will help you shed those pounds. But if you’re post-menopausal, you’ll have to work harder since menopause slows down your metabolism, which makes it more difficult to lose weight.
6. “Metal mouth”
Chemo patients often complain of a funny, metallic taste in their mouth resembling tin cans, along with mouth sores and a terribly sore throat. These symptoms should all disappear within weeks of finishing treatment.
7. Breast swelling, pain, and burns from radiation
If you’ve been through radiation, your breast may never be exactly the same size and shape it once was. But any major fluid buildup should disappear, as will pain. Your reddened/darkened skin will for the most part return to its former color as well.
This is a tricky one. Many women experience cognitive deficits or “chemobrain” during treatment. And while some quickly regain their mental acuity once they’ve finished, others struggle for years with short-term memory loss, a diminished vocabulary and confusion with simple everyday tasks. If you find you’re still experiencing chemobrain symptoms several months post-treatment, speak with your oncologist. There are a number of potential treatments you can try.
9. Immune system damage
Chemotherapy compromises your immune system to the point where normally harmless exposure to germs can cause a major illness. Thankfully, your body quickly rebuilds its supply of white blood cells once the chemo drugs leave your system. You’ll no longer have to avoid the “danger” of a crowded movie theater or other public gatherings.
10. Menopausal symptoms
Both chemotherapy and hormone therapy can reduce a woman’s level of circulating estrogen,. This can lead to hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness, insomnia and thinning hair. If you’re able to have periods again once treatment is over, such side effects may disappear quickly. However, women who’ve entered menopause may experience hot flashes for years before they start to disappear. Other side effects may be lasting, too.
"Chemotherapy." Chemotherapy and Hair Loss: What to Expect during Treatment. April 5, 2016. Accessed May 30, 2016. http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/chemotherapy/in-depth/hair-loss/art-20046920.
"Side Effects from Radiation Therapy to the Breast." June 30, 2015. Accessed May 30, 2016. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/radiation/understandingradiationtherapyaguideforpatientsandfamilies/understanding-radiation-therapy-radiation-to-breast.
Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.