Side Effects Of Breast Cancer & Chemotherapy

breast cancer survivors

The physical effects of breast cancer and its treatment can include changes in how your body works, looks and feels in the short and long term. These changes can impact body image, early menopause, fertility and lymphoedema.

And of course, these are on top of other cancer-related issues and side-effects such as stress, worry, pain, scars, surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, fatigue and nausea.

Even though everyone’s breast cancer journey is unique, you’re not alone. Around 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12%) will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Today, there are more than 3.5 million U.S. women with a history of breast cancer, including those who are currently having treatment and those who have finished treatment.

The good news is that the number of cancer survivors has been increasing since 2000, largely due to improvements in screening (early detection) and the treatment of breast cancer. Five-year breast cancer survival rates are now as high as 90%.

Breast cancer and body image

Breast cancer and its treatment can cause physical and emotional changes that affect body image, and potentially sexuality and intimacy as a result. This can occur whether you are in a partnership or are single.

Struggles with body image is a concern for many women, especially after breast surgery, hair loss or breast reconstruction. Poor body image can also make dating difficult.

In addition to these concerns, many women experience pain either from their cancer or as a result of vaginal dryness caused by early menopause brought on by breast cancer treatment, which can be affect sex and intimacy.

Although sexual intimacy is often different after cancer treatment, it’s important for you and your partner to remain as connected as possible. Women today are better educated, more health conscious about living well. That’s why it’s really important to have good and honest communication with your partner and doctor about your body image concerns.

Breast cancer and early menopause

Breast cancer treatments can affect the whole body and bring on early menopause. The hormone changes at menopause cause changes in the tissues of the vulva, vagina and bladder. As estrogen levels drop, the membranes of the vagina get thinner and less flexible, and produce less lubricating fluid.

This can cause what is known as vaginal atrophy, or vaginal dryness, which is often accompanied by pain, discomfort and/or itching; and sexual intercourse may be uncomfortable or even painful as a result. Both chemotherapy and endocrine (hormone) therapies, such as aridimiex, femara and tamoxifen, can cause early menopause to occur.

It’s not just awkward and uncomfortable. Vaginal dryness can affect your daily functioning, your mood, your relationship with a partner, and impair your overall wellbeing. That’s why it’s important to address it.

Breast cancer and fertility

Breast cancer treatment can cause fertility issues, and derail plans to have children if pregnancy is not safe or possible or has to be delayed. Some breast cancer treatments can cause temporary infertility or make it harder for you to get pregnant after treatment. 

If you want to have children now or in the future, it’s very important to talk to your doctor about your fertility options before starting treatment. Research shows that doctors often don’t provide enough information about what can happen to fertility with different breast cancer treatments, despite its importance for young female cancer survivors, and many women don’t receive adequate fertility education and counselling as a result.

As the field of onco-fertility rapidly advances, oncologists require regular effort to remain up to date to feel confident in their knowledge and expertise to educate their young female patients regarding fertility issues and support them. If your doctor doesn’t start the conversation, it’s important to bring up your concerns.

Breast cancer and lymphoedema

Lymphedema after breast cancer is caused by damage to or removal of armpit or breast lymph nodes, often caused by radiotherapy or surgery as treatment for breast cancer. Not all women who have lymph nodes removed during their surgery will develop lymphedema.

While there is no cure, it can be successfully managed. If you do develop lymphedema, it’s important to take care of your skin, keep active and work with a lymphedema specialist.

Breast cancer can be a young woman’s journey too

Although breast cancer occurs more frequently in older women, more than 250,000 women are diagnosed in in younger women (under 40) in the U.S. each year[11].

There are differences in the breast cancers that occur in younger women compared to older women. These breast cancers tend to be diagnosed in later stages, as there is no effective breast cancer screening tool yet for women under 40; and tend to be more aggressive.

Young women with breast cancer face unique challenges

Having a cancer diagnosis at a young age affects a different phase in your life, and younger women encounter unique challenges as a result. These can significantly impact the quality and length of life.

It’s common for younger women with breast cancer to be pregnant or raising children while enduring treatment and its side effects. This can present extremely difficult challenges around employment, financial stability, lack of sufficient health insurance and the cost of cancer care.

The possibility of fertility issues, early menopause, body image concerns and its impact on intimacy, is stressful and hard to deal with. Struggling with vaginal dryness and its effects, or a lack of desire, may not be something that you have experienced previously.

Supporting women with breast cancer

FemmePharma is dedicated to helping women – including breast cancer survivors – by developing over-the-counter products that safely and effectively alleviate the symptoms of menopause.

The company’s President and CEO Gerianne Tringali DiPiano was the 2019 recipient of the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Founders Award, the highest honour presented by the national nonprofit organization, which provides all people affected by breast cancer with a trusted source of information and community of support.

FemmePharma has designed vulvar moisturizer Satisfem and vaginal moisturizer Satisfaite to provide relief from vaginal dryness, itching, burning and discomfort with pharmaceutical-grade hyaluronic acid and vitamin E.

Hyaluronic acid is an ultra-effective skin care ingredient that hydrates and soothes the skin by locking in moisture. It has proven to be a powerful skin care ingredient that is safe for use on your vaginal skin. If you’ve had radiation that included the vagina, you may want to try a moisturizer that has vitamin E, which can help break down scar tissue, like Satisfem and Satisfaite.

These moisturizers are proven effective and safe to use during and after cancer treatment. With regular use, they can make a big difference to your vaginal health and maintaining your overall wellness during and after cancer treatment.


About the author
Melissa has 17+ years of experience in research, writing and editing for pharmaceutical companies, healthcare communication agencies, not-for-profit organisations, start-ups, research institutes, government bodies, universities and private individuals.