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Managing the Visible Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatments

Visible side effects from breast cancer treatment range from breast changes to hair loss. Although these can take a physical and emotional toll on a person, there is a lot you can do to make yourself look and feel better during treatment.

WebMD provides tips to help you overcome the visible signs of breast cancer treatment so that you can feel good about yourself.

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Visible side effects of breast cancer treatments: Breast changes

The first visible side effect of breast cancer treatment you may have to overcome is having part or all of your breast (s) removed. If you've had a mastectomy, you may choose to use an external prosthesis as an alternative to, or prior to, breast reconstruction surgery. When wearing a breast prosthesis, you tuck it into a bra or attach it to your skin with double-sided tape. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind when getting a breast prosthesis.

  • Get a prescription for an external prosthesis; then usually it can be covered by insurance.
  • Ask your oncologist for referral to a specialized store that sells external prostheses. You can also find them in some lingerie departments.
  • Make an appointment with a breast prosthesis consultant and allow about an hour to get fitted.
  • Try a variety of prostheses to see which feels and looks the best on you.


Visible side effects of breast cancer treatments: Hair loss

Why do so many people lose their hair when they begin chemotherapy? It's because chemo kills fast-growing cells, whether they're cancer or normal cells. Hair follicles are fast-growing cells. Hair loss varies from person to person and depends on the type of chemo you're taking. Radiation and hormonal treatments may also cause hair loss.

What to expect with hair loss

If you lose hair, it is likely to fall out within one to two weeks of starting chemotherapy. It may thin or fall out almost all at once. It's common to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head. This means you may lose eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as arm, leg, and pubic hair.

You can't prevent hair loss with ice caps or other measures. But using a mild shampoo, soft hairbrush, or cool blow-drying may slightly reduce your hair loss.

Sometimes hair begins to grow back even before treatment is completed. When it does grow back, it may be thinner or a different color or texture.

Tips for handling hair loss

Hair loss can be difficult, especially for women. But there are many things you can do to prepare and make the process easier. For example, many women find it helpful to cut their hair short before too much hair comes out. This is less disturbing than having huge clumps of hair come out in the shower or waking to large amounts on the pillow. Here are some other tips that may help:

  • Ask your oncologist for a "cranial prosthesis" prescription to help ensure insurance coverage.
  • Check with wig retailers and makers, your hair stylist, or the American Cancer Society to learn about wig and hair product options.
  • Before you begin chemotherapy and lose your hair, match your hair texture or color to wigs. This is also a good time to have the wig styled, if needed. However, if you get fitted with a wig early, know that it may fit slightly differently once you lose your hair.
  • Consider purchasing scarves, turbans, caps, or hats ahead of time.
  • Prepare loved ones, especially children, for how you will look with your hair gone. Reassure children that your hair will grow back. It may help to involve them in choosing scarves and other hair products.
  • If you choose to go bald, remember to use sunscreen on your head when in the sun and keep your head warm in cold climates.


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