The Lingering Effects of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer late effects need to be monitored and treated

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Just because cancer has been beaten doesn't mean the battle is over. Side effects can - and often do - linger for years. Yet many women who are living beyond breast cancer aren't getting adequate care for these late effects.

Recent research finds that more than 60 percent of women suffer at least one treatment-related side effect six years after their breast cancer diagnosis.

These findings will provide the foundation for developing strategies to prevent, monitor and treat these troublesome conditions experienced by 2.6 million breast cancer winners in the United States.

"Exercise before, during and after breast cancer,"

Kathryn Schmitz, PhD, MPH, an associate professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania led the research.

"We can no longer pretend that the side effects of breast cancer treatment end after patients finish active treatment. The scope of these complications is shocking and upsetting, but a ready solution for many of them already exists in rehabilitative exercise," Schmitz said.

Schmitz, who is a member of Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, worked with a team of Australian researchers. They followed 287 Australian women who had been diagnosed with invasive in one breast cancer for about 6 1/2 years. Throughout the study, researchers assessed the women for treatment-related complications.

Breast cancer complications can range from lymphedema (painful swelling of limbs) to fatigue and weight gain. And 30 percent of women struggle with at least two issues years after active treatment is completed, according to this research.

Most of the complications appeared within the first year following treatment and resolve on their own. However, weight gain and lymphedema can be troublesome for years.

Part of the problem in treating these issues is the fragmented care women receive following their cancer journey, and the fact that few oncologists and surgeons refer patients to physical therapy, according to the researchers.

dailyRx asked Schmitz what women can do to overcome these limitations. "They can educate themselves about the various persistent negative effects of treatment that commonly occur among breast cancer survivors, including chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy [numbness], bone health, heart effects (heart failure and arrhythmias), weight gain, upper body symptoms, fatigue, and lymphedema, among others," she said.

Here are other suggestions, Schmitz offered, when asked about actions women can take:

  • "They can ask for regular and ongoing evaluation of these issues by their health care professionals.
  • They can start and maintain a regular program of exercise to help reduce, prevent, rehabilitate, attenuate, or treat many of these effects.
  • Ditto for eating a healthy diet and achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight.
  • They can demand that their doctors take these issues seriously … there is a tendency on the part of some oncology clinicians to dismiss persistent adverse effects of treatment, given that having these problems is clearly vastly preferable to being dead. I don’t think that women should accept this attitude anymore.
  • They can find well educated clinical exercise professionals and oncology nutritionists to help them."

In light of the challenges breast cancer patients face, a model has been developed for surveying patients and formally including rehabilitation and exercise specialists in cancer survivorship programs.

Schmitz and colleagues will work through the American Cancer Society with various groups to implement this plan.  

This research was published in the April issue of Cancer, which is dedicated to examining and exploring ways to abate the late effects of breast cancer.

No funding information was provided.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 15, 2012
Last Updated:
April 18, 2012