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Side Effects From Breast Cancer Chemotherapy and Radiation


Hair Loss

Whether women lose their hair depends on the type of chemotherapy they take for breast cancer and the dose. Your oncologist will likely tell you if you can expect hair loss.

While some women notice only thinning of their hair, others lose their hair completely. Some lose hair suddenly, while others notice a more gradual loss a few weeks after starting treatment. Sometimes, eyelashes and eyebrows also fall out.

Losing hair can be very difficult emotionally. Some women prepare by getting a short hair cut before chemotherapy begins. A variety of hair wraps and wigs are available to wear during chemotherapy.

Some women notice that their hair texture changes when it grows back in, but many experience no change in their hair. The good news about hair loss is that it begins growing back once treatment is stopped. It can take several months to completely regrow hair.

Weight Gain

Some women with breast cancer gain weight because of several factors:

  • Lack of activity
  • Increased focus on eating
  • Medications
  • Depression
  • Hormonal changes

If you notice you are gaining weight, let your doctor know. Do not go on a diet on your own since your body needs a lot of nutrients during breast cancer treatment.

Lowered Resistance to Infections

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for breast cancer can disrupt the production of white blood cells, which are essential for fighting infection. Try to stay out of large crowds, and away from sick adults and children, for seven to 10 days after receiving chemotherapy. That's when your white counts are usually lowest.

Contact your doctor right away if you become sick. Sometimes doctors recommend taking antibiotics as a precaution. Others suggest women receive a flu shot before beginning chemotherapy.

If your white blood cell counts are too low, you may be given a growth factor called G-CSF (granulocyte colony stimulating factor -- Neupogen or Neulasta) or GM-CSF (granulocyte macrophage colony stimulating factor -- Leukine).

Recognizing a Breast Cancer Emergency

If you have breast cancer, call your nurse or doctor if you have:

  • A temperature greater than 100.4º F. If you have any fever or chills, notify your doctor immediately. If you are unable to contact your doctor, go to the emergency room.
  • If you notice new mouth sores, patches, a swollen tongue, or bleeding gums.
  • If you experience a dry, burning, scratchy, or "swollen" throat.
  • A cough that is new or persistent and produces mucus.
  • Changes in bladder function, including increased frequency or urgency to go; burning during urination; or blood in your urine
  • Changes in gastrointestinal function, including heart burn; nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea that is severe or lasts longer than two or three days; or blood in stools.



WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 02, 2014
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