Easing your pain, fatigue, or even itchy, peeling feet is part of your doctor's job when you're in treatment for advanced breast cancer. Don't be afraid to speak up! There are many ways to treat the side effects of cancer drugs.
When you have advanced breast cancer, you are likely to be on some kind of therapy for many years. So doctors change their approach. They may use different drugs. They may use the same drugs, but in lower doses. Or they may use just one drug at a time, in sequence, instead of a combination.
"I want to keep that chemo going indefinitely as long as the tumor is responding," says Julie Gralow, MD, of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. "We try to get a dose that works against the tumor but that the patient can still tolerate."
Here are some of the side effects you might expect during treatment, and what you can do to cope.
Hair loss is one of those things that everyone expects from cancer treatment. But most of the single-agent chemotherapy drugs used for advanced breast cancer don’t necessarily make you lose your hair.
"I have patients who haven’t even told their friends or certain people in their lives that they are dealing with metastases, and you wouldn’t know if you looked at them," says Virginia Borges, MD, of University of Colorado-Denver School of Medicine.
But if you do have to use a type of chemo that causes hair loss, one source of help is a Look Good, Feel Better session, which offers free makeover sessions, beauty tips, and products for women with cancer, including advice on scarves and wigs.
Many of the single-agent chemotherapy drugs often used for metastatic breast cancer tend to cause a lot fewer stomach problems than the more aggressive drugs, schedules, and doses used in early-stage cancer.
Feeling tired all the time, even after a full night's sleep, can be a particular challenge. Your treatments go on for a long time without a break, and a deep fatigue can build up.
The single best thing you can do to combat fatigue, Borges says, is exercise.
"Research shows that women who get regular exercise during cancer treatment feel better and have more energy."
You don’t have to push hard or go far. Three hours a week may be enough to make you feel better. Gentle workouts like yoga and brisk walks fit the bill.
Ask your doctor to also check for underlying causes of fatigue, like anemia and thyroid problems.
Pain or Tingling in Hands and Feet
Pain, numbness, or tingling in your hands and feet, called neuropathy, is a side effect of many drugs used to treat breast cancer that has spread.
Tell your doctor as soon as you feel symptoms. He or she may change the dose of your cancer medicine. Your doctor may suggest adding another drug to help with pain or tingling.