Managing Side Effects and Supportive Care
Supportive care is all the care given to improve the quality of life for people with breast cancer (or any serious health condition). It’s sometimes known as palliative care.
Symptom management is part of supportive care. Symptom management aims to prevent or relieve the side effects of breast cancer and breast cancer treatment (such as pain or nausea). It’s an extra layer of care given along with treatment for the cancer.
Supportive care also includes taking care of your emotional, social, spiritual and practical needs (such as transportation).
Supportive care begins at diagnosis and continues throughout treatment and beyond. It’s an important part of care for people with all stages of breast cancer.
This page has information on supportive care for people with early and locally advanced breast cancer.
Supportive care for people with early or locally advanced breast cancer
Find information on many supportive care topics including:
- Emotional impact of diagnosis and treatment
- Short-term side effects
- Late effects of treatment
- Practical needs
The emotional impact of diagnosis and treatment
After a breast cancer diagnosis, you may feel a wide range of emotions including shock, fear, denial, sadness and anger. It’s common to feel depressed and anxious .
Taking care of your emotional well-being during this time is as important as tending to the physical side effects of treatment.
Talk with your health care provider or clinical social worker about how you’re coping. They can help you find ways to improve your emotional well-being. They can also help you find a counselor or support group.
Learn more about:
- Coping with stress
- Fear of breast cancer recurrence (a return of breast cancer)
- Social support and support groups
Social support for people diagnosed with breast cancer
Social support is the emotional support, practical help and other benefits you get from your family, friends and other loved ones.
You may also get social support from your community including your church, synagogue or other religious organizations.
Many people can expand and strengthen their social support systems by joining a breast cancer support group.
Social support can improve your emotional health. Breast cancer survivors who have a lot of social support tend to cope better than survivors with little support [256-257].
Social support for family, friends and other loved ones
As with any major illness, breast cancer affects spouses and partners, family members and other loved ones. They may feel many of the same emotions as the person diagnosed: shock, sadness, fear, anger and denial.
Loved ones (especially spouses, partners and children) may also need social support.
Learn more about social support for family, friends and other loved ones.
Susan G. Komen® Support Resources
Short-term side effects
All breast cancer treatments have some short-term physical side effects. However, everyone is different. With any treatment, your side effects may differ from someone else’s.
Before any treatment begins, talk with your health care team about possible side effects and ways to deal with them. Don’t feel you have to endure side effects.
The good news is most side effects can be managed and many can be prevented. Even so, it’s normal to worry.
Once treatment begins, tell your health care team about any side effects you have. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends your health care provider determine your supportive care (palliative care) needs before treatment begins and throughout your treatment .
Learn about possible short-term side effects including (in alphabetical order):
- Breast tenderness, redness or swelling
- Fingernail and toenail weakness
- Hair loss
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Insomnia (sleeping problems)
- Irregular periods or spotting (uterine bleeding)
- Joint pain
- Loss of bone mineral density (may lead to osteoporosis or bone fractures)
- Loss of sex drive
- Mouth and throat sores
- Muscle pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Neuropathy (nerve pain or numbness)
- Numbness in the chest area
- Numbness in the arm (after axillary lymph nodes were removed)
- Skin irritation (while undergoing radiation therapy)
- Surgical complications, such as infection
- Vaginal symptoms
Learn about possible short-term side effects of different treatments:
- Lumpectomy (pain and other side effects)
- Mastectomy (pain and other side effects)
- Radiation therapy (pain, other short-term side effects and late effects)
- Chemotherapy (pain, other short-term side effects and late effects)
- HER2-targeted therapy (side effects of trastuzumab, ado-trastuzumab emtansine, pertuzumab and neratinib)
- Hormone therapy (side effects of tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors and ovarian suppression)
- Immunotherapy (side effects of pembrolizumab)
- PARP inhibitor therapy (side effects of olaparib)
Talk with your health care team
Once treatment begins, tell your health care team about any side effects you have.
The only way your health care team can help you manage side effects is if they know about them. Don’t think side effects are simply a part of your treatment and you need to be strong and endure them. Even when they’re mild, they can interfere with your daily life. So, be honest and tell them what you’re going through.
Together, you can discuss ways to manage your symptoms. It may help to keep a list of your symptoms to take with you to your appointments. Also note when the symptoms occur and how long they last. For example, what day after chemotherapy side effects tend to occur, the number of days it takes for the side effects to go away and if the side effects occur more often in the morning or at night.
Managing side effects helps you feel better and may help you complete treatment.
Breast cancer treatment is most effective when all parts of the treatment plan are completed.
Learn more about the importance of following your breast cancer treatment plan.
Late effects of treatment
Once breast cancer treatment ends, most of the physical side effects of treatment go away.
However, some side effects may be long-term. Others may occur months or even years after treatment ends.
These late effects of treatment vary from person to person, so your experience may be different from someone else’s.
Learn more about possible late effects of breast cancer treatment.
Relieving pain is important throughout your breast cancer care. Let your health care provider know about any pain or discomfort you have.
The goal of pain management is to give the most pain relief with the least amount of medication (to limit side effects).
For most people, pain from breast cancer treatment is temporary and goes away after treatment ends. Some people, however, can have pain for longer periods of time.
Learn more about managing pain related to breast cancer treatment.
Palliative care specialists
Palliative care and pain specialists (doctors, nurse practitioners and nurses) have special training in pain management and symptom management.
Sometimes a palliative care specialist is part of your treatment team. If not, be sure to ask your oncologist for a referral to a specialist if:
- Your pain isn’t controlled
- You have side effects from the pain medications
- You would like to discuss more ways to manage your pain
Learn more about palliative care specialists and early breast cancer treatment.
Managing practical needs
Throughout breast cancer treatment, you may face many practical challenges.
You must deal with financial issues as well as practical needs, such as help with child care or getting groceries on days when you don’t feel well.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, dealing with insurance and financial issues can be overwhelming.
Whether you need help going through your insurance plan or financial assistance for prescription drug costs and other expenses, there are resources to help.
Learn more about:
- Financial assistance
- Mastectomy and reconstructive surgery coverage
- Prescription drug assistance
Travel, lodging, child care and elder care
Getting to your breast cancer treatments can be hard, especially if you don’t live near the hospital or medical center.
If you need a ride to and from treatment or help with child or elder care, there may be resources available. Family and friends often want to help but don’t know how. These may be great ways for them to get involved.
It’s OK to ask for help.
Learn more about:
A social worker or patient navigator may be able to help you find resources.
Komen Financial Assistance Program
Susan G. Komen® created the Komen Financial Assistance Program to help those struggling with the costs of breast cancer treatment by providing financial assistance to eligible individuals.
Funding is available for eligible individuals undergoing breast cancer treatment at any stage or living with metastatic breast cancer (stage 4).
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