Three Common Problems for Breast Cancer Survivors

Patient Expert

Have you ever wondered if other people have had the same treatment side effects you have?  Do you want to understand why you or someone you love got breast cancer despite having no known risk factors?  Have you ever wanted to do something to make a difference in cancer research?  Maybe you wish you had an extra million dollars lying around so that you could do something meaningful to end cancer.

You will be glad to know that you don’t need big dollars to contribute to cancer research.  The Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation has a way that your experience can help find the causes of breast cancer and can help make the lives of survivors better.  You can participate in the Health of Women (HOW) Study by answering questions about your health history and life style habits.  You don’t need to have had breast cancer to participate.  In fact, the majority of the members of the study have never had breast cancer.

I’ve been participating in HOW for several years now.  One of the benefits is that I get updates on what the research shows.  Most recently I received a newsletter article about the main side effects that trouble breast cancer survivors.  About half of the survivors indicated trouble with hot flashes, sleeping and vaginal dryness.  A major cause for all of these is a change in hormones caused by treatment putting women into early menopause or by follow-up hormonal treatments like tamoxifen or Arimidex. What can you do if you are one of those bothered by these problems?

1.) Hot flashes. If all those common sense remedies like adjusting the thermostat, using a fan and dressing in moisture-wicking layers aren’t working for you, you may be wondering whether you should try some sort of hormone replacement therapy. Because HRT is a known breast cancer risk factor, your doctor will probably want to try some other remedy first.  Some anti-depressants and other medications are known to help with hot flashes, or your doctor might OK your using soy, flaxseed, or black cohosh.  The important thing is to discuss with your doctor are the risks and benefits of each possible medication for you.

2.) Sleep problems. Hot flashes and night sweats can make it hard for you to sleep.  Some medications can disrupt your sleep rhythms. So can worry about all the issues cancer brings up. So it’s not surprising that so many women report sleep problems during and after breast cancer.  PJ Hamel has written a series of articles that will give you good ideas for developing good sleep habits like doing something calm and relaxing in the last half hour before going to bed, setting a regular bedtime, avoiding caffeine, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark.  If these don’t help, talk to your doctor about the possibility of a short course of medication to get you back on track or about a referral to a sleep specialist who can work with you to establish effective sleeping patterns.

3.) Vaginal dryness. This problem can be especially troubling because it can be hard to talk about.  Vaginal lubricants can make sexual activity easier, but a vaginal moisturizer will work better for the long term.  When you are reading the labels in the drug store, the lubricants usually will have directions that call for using them during sex, and the moisturizers will be for use daily or several times a week to keep the vagina healthy all the time.  If the first brand you try doesn’t work, try another, but don’t be embarrassed to ask your doctor for a recommendation for over-the-counter or prescription moisturizers.  Severe vaginal dryness is a general health issue, not just a matter of sexual pleasure, so it is important to let your doctor know about this problem.  Depending on the type of breast cancer you had and your oncologist’s opinion, you might be a candidate for a low-dose topical estrogen that won’t be absorbed into your blood stream.

Speak up—help others

This kind of information about the real lives of cancer survivors is important.  When doctors understand that about half of their breast cancer patients may be experiencing hot flashes, sleep problems, and vaginal dryness, they are more likely to bring up the issue at follow-up appointments.  When patients have this type of information they can see the connection between their treatment and problems that may seem unrelated.  Knowing the connection can empower them to speak up and ask for help.  Consider adding to the body of knowledge about breast cancer by participating in a research study.  Your answers will make a difference for you and others.

See more helpful articles on these three problems:

Breast Cancer:  Dealing with Sleep Issues

Coping with Hot Flashes

Dealing with Hot Flashes

Cooling Down Hot Flashes.  Is HRT Safe for You?

Fast FAQ’s:  Chemotherapy and Sex Drive