How Might Your Body Change After Breast Cancer?

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By Maureen Robb on October 23, 2018

You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, and you’re aware that the treatments may cause side effects.

Common complications include hair loss, scars or reactions to radiation.

Other less-discussed side effects, such as swelling of the arm and weight change, are also possible.

As you begin treatment, what can you expect, and how can you prepare for possible changes to your body?

Arm Swelling

“Women who have lymph nodes removed as part of their breast cancer treatment are at risk for development of lymphedema, which is chronic (long-term or ongoing) swelling of the arm on the treated side,” said Jessica Partin, M.D., a breast surgeon with Carilion Clinic.

“This swelling is accumulation of fluid within the tissue of the arm that is unable to exit the arm due to the removal of lymph nodes in the armpit,” she noted. 

Most women who have lymph node removal will not develop lymphedema, but you should be aware that it can occur months to years after surgery.

If it does occur, your surgeon may send you to a lymphedema specialist who can help you manage it. The goal is to get the swelling under control and to keep it from increasing.

Therapies for lymphedema include:

  • Manual decompression (massage by a lymphedema therapist)
  • Wearing compression garments (for example, a compression sleeve). Some sleeves are made with attractive patterns and decorations.
  • Exercise

Weight Change

“Women undergoing treatment for breast cancer may notice mild weight gain due to several factors,” Dr. Partin said. “They may be tired and less active or may eat more due to anxiety.”

Certain drugs can also increase your appetite, and chemotherapy can affect your metabolism.

Knowing this ahead of time can help you understand the changes and perhaps better control what is happening to your body.

A dietitian can help by suggesting healthy and appetizing foods during treatment. 
Exercise is also valuable. “Making exercise part of your regular routine, even if you are only able to carve out 15 to 20 minutes a day for a walk, will help you to maintain your weight,” Dr. Partin said.

Being outside also helps improve your mood and makes it easier to get back to feeling normal after treatment is finished.

Relating to Others

Coping psychologically with breast cancer may also be a challenge. Yet it’s normal to have fear and anxiety during treatment, and it is OK to share these feelings.

“Very often, your family and friends experience these feelings as well and are frustrated they can’t help,” Dr. Partin pointed out. “Talking things out and asking for help can be beneficial for both you and your support team.”

“If you don’t feel comfortable talking with family or friends, there are support groups and other resources available, both in your local community and online,” she suggested.

These steps can help:

  • Encourage (but don’t force) talks
  • Share your feelings and fears
  • Listen carefully and don’t deny or discount feelings
  • Remember that it is OK to feel frustrated and sad
  • Get help as needed through counseling and/or support groups
  • Use meditation, prayer or other types of spiritual support
  • Try deep breathing and relaxation exercises
  • Talk to your doctor or provider about anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications

Most of all, remember that others are there for you and want to help. And it’s always all right to reach out and ask.

This is part 2 of a two-part story on coping with changes to your body after breast cancer.

Part 1 discusses how to cope with common side effects such as scars, hair loss and reactions to radiation.