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What to Expect After Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, and it also harms healthy cells. That means it often causes unwanted, and sometimes serious, side effects. Ask your oncologist and chemotherapy nurse about each drug's side effects. Side effects depend on the chemotherapy drugs you take and on the drug combinations that are used. Many of these side effects can be controlled and most get better during the recovery part of the chemotherapy cycle or after the treatment is done.

Common side effects from chemotherapy for breast cancer

Here's a list of some common side effects linked to chemotherapy for breast cancer. They're listed in alphabetical order. Ask your doctor which ones are most likely to happen to you based on the drugs you're taking:

  • Anemia

  • Appetite loss

  • Bruising or bleeding easily

  • Diarrhea

  • Hair loss

  • Infections

  • Memory changes

  • Mouth sores

  • Nausea

  • Numbness or tingling in your hands and feet

  • Sexual changes and fertility problems

  • Skin changes, such as redness or dryness

  • Tiredness (often called fatigue)

  • Vomiting

Potential long-term side effects

Some chemotherapy drugs can harm your ovaries and cause long-term side effects if you haven't gone through menopause yet. You may have side effects like these:

  • Hot flashes

  • Inability to get pregnant. Keep in mind, though, that you may still be able to get pregnant during treatment, even if your periods have stopped. Because chemotherapy drugs can cause birth defects, you should talk with your doctor about using birth control before treatment begins. After treatment, you may still be able to get pregnant if you're under 40. However, if you're older than 40, permanent infertility is more likely.

  • Irregular periods

  • Vaginal dryness

How to recognize signs of infection

Your doctor will likely take blood samples from you often during your chemotherapy treatments to make sure you aren't having harmful reactions. Make sure you ask your doctor what signs or symptoms, if any, mean you should call your doctor immediately. For instance, chemotherapy can make it easier for you to get infections, so you should call your doctor if you have any of the following signs or symptoms of infection:

  • Burning during urination or bloody or cloudy urine

  • Ear pain

  • Fever of 100.5 degrees or higher by mouth

  • Nasal congestion or sinus pain or headache 

  • New cough or shortness of breath

  • Redness, swelling, and warmth at the site of an injury

  • Skin rash

  • Sore throat or a white coating in your mouth or on your tongue 

  • Shaking chills

  • Stiff or sore neck

Be prepared

There's no way to tell if you will have side effects or how bad they will be. Knowing what to watch for and what to do if you have problems is a good way to be ready for whatever side effects you may have. Also be sure you know how to contact your doctor after office hours and on weekends. 

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