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What to Expect After Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy kills cancer cells, and it also harms healthy cells. As a result, it often causes unwanted, and sometimes serious, side effects. Ask your cancer doctor, called an oncologist, and your chemotherapy nurse about each drug's side effects. These depend on the chemotherapy drugs, as well as on the combinations used. Many side effects can be controlled. 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

Following is an alphabetical list of some of the common side effects associated with chemotherapy for breast cancer. Ask your health care provider which ones you are most likely to experience, 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. Side effects may include:

  • 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. Chemotherapy drugs can cause birth defects, so you should talk with your health care provider 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 health care provider 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 him or her what signs or symptoms, if any, mean you should call. For instance, chemotherapy can make it easier for you to get infections. You should call your health care provider if you have any of the following signs or symptoms of infection:

  • Burning during urination, or bloody or cloudy urine

  • Ear pain

  • Temperature of 100.5°F (38.0°C) or higher, by mouth

  • Nasal congestion, 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 do 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 health care provider after office hours and on weekends.