Breast Cancer Treatment Had Lingering Health Effects

Long term effects of breast cancer treatment included increased lymphadema and osteoporosis

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Women with breast cancer often receive radiation treatments and chemotherapy to fight their disease. In some women, those treatments might bring long-term health effects that aren’t so desirable.

To look at long-term effects on bones, the heart and tissue fluid, researchers compared women who had breast cancer treatment with those who did not.

These researchers found that lymphadema (arm or leg swelling due to fluid), osteopenia (mild decrease in bone density) and osteoporosis (severe loss of bone density) were increased in women after breast cancer treatment.

"Discuss the side effects of cancer treatment with your oncologist."

Deirdre A. Hill, PhD, MPH, from the Department of Internal Medicine and Cancer Research and Treatment at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was the lead author of this published study.

The study included 2,535 women who had been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer and 2,429 women without cancer.

Invasive breast cancers will spread outside of the milk duct or lobules and invade the surrounding tissues, and spread to other parts of the body. Most of the women in this study were pre-menopausal when they were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 56 percent of those entered menopause within two years of diagnosis.

Study participants completed health questionnaires at the start of the study, then annually or every two years. The questionnaire asked the women whether they had been diagnosed with lymphadema, osteopenia, osteoporosis or heart conditions that included coronary (heart vessel) disease, congestive heart failure and heart attack. Data was collected on most women for 10 years.

Results of this research showed that women who had breast cancer had an 8.6-fold higher risk of lymphadema than women without cancer. Lymphadema was reported by 14 percent of the women with breast cancer.

Osteopenia was reported by 35 percent of the women with breast cancer, and 11 percent of these women reported having osteoporosis. In contrast, 19 percent of the women without cancer reported having osteopenia, and 7 percent reported being diagnosed with osteoporosis.

Women who had their breast cancer treated with chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy had higher rates of lymphadema and osteopenia than women who did not have those treatments. Women whose breast cancer was treated with radiation reported a higher incidence of osteoporosis than those who did not have radiation treatments.

None of the three heart conditions were increased in the women with breast cancer compared to women without cancer.

"Treatment for any cancer can have lingering effects, but in the end, you need to look at the risks of treatment verses the benefits. More often, the benefits are much greater than the risks, the biggest risk being tumor growth," said Alexis Harvey, MD, Medical Director for the New Jersey Region of 21st Century Oncology.

"Any side effects from radiation treatments, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy should be discussed in detail before the start of treatment," said Dr. Harvey, who was not involved in this research.

The authors cited several limitations of their study. The study participants were women who had survived cancer, so the health effects in women who already died were not included in the research study. Most of the women in this study were below age 50 and may not have represented results in older women.

“Responses from survivors a decade following cancer diagnosis demonstrate substantial treatment-related morbidity [disease] and emphasize the need for continued medical surveillance and follow-up care into the second decade post-diagnosis,” the study authors concluded.

This study appeared in the April issue of Breast Cancer Research and Treatment.

Grants from the National Cancer Institute provided funding for the research.

The authors did not disclose any conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 8, 2014
Last Updated:
April 9, 2014