womens health
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Beyond Hair Loss: Understanding the Lesser-Known Side-Effects of Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

Chemotherapy is a common treatment option for breast cancer patients. While it can be effective in fighting cancer, chemotherapy also comes with several side effects that are often overlooked. These side effects can range from physical to emotional and can have long-lasting impacts on patients’ lives.

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Hair loss is one of the most well-known side effects of chemotherapy, but there are other lesser-known side effects that need attention as well. One such effect is peripheral neuropathy, which causes tingling or numbness in the hands and feet. This condition affects up to 50% of breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (1). It can be painful and affect daily activities like walking or holding objects.

Another less known effect is cognitive impairment, commonly referred to as “chemo brain.” Patients experiencing chemo brain may have trouble concentrating, remembering things, or completing tasks they could easily do before starting treatment (2). Studies show that up to 75% of breast cancer patients experience some level of cognitive impairment during their treatment (3).

Fatigue is another common yet underrated symptom among breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. It’s not just feeling tired; it’s an overwhelming sense of exhaustion that doesn’t go away even after restful sleep (4). Fatigue can impact quality-of-life by interfering with work responsibilities or social engagements.

Depression and anxiety are also prevalent among breast cancer survivors who undergo chemotherapy treatments. The stress associated with diagnosis and treatment combined with changes in appearance due to hair loss or weight gain contribute significantly to these mental health issues (5).

It’s essential for healthcare providers and loved ones to recognize these symptoms so they can offer support throughout the patient’s journey through this challenging time.

Fortunately, researchers continue exploring new ways to lessen these adverse reactions while maintaining therapeutic efficacy against tumors. For example:

• Cold Cap Therapy: A study published in JAMA found that using a cold cap during chemotherapy can significantly reduce hair loss in breast cancer patients (6). The cap works by cooling the scalp and reducing blood flow, which limits the amount of chemotherapy drugs reaching hair follicles. This method has been successful in Europe for years.

• Acupuncture: Some studies suggest that acupuncture may help alleviate peripheral neuropathy symptoms (7). Acupuncture uses fine needles to stimulate specific points on the body, which can increase circulation and relieve pain.

• Exercise: Research shows that exercise can help reduce fatigue among breast cancer patients undergoing treatment (8). It’s essential to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new exercise regimen.

In conclusion, while chemotherapy is an effective treatment option for breast cancer, it comes with several side effects beyond hair loss. Peripheral neuropathy, cognitive impairment or chemo brain, fatigue and mental health issues are prevalent among those who undergo this type of therapy. Healthcare providers should recognize these symptoms so they can offer support throughout their patient’s journey through this challenging time. Meanwhile researchers continue exploring new ways to lessen these adverse reactions while maintaining therapeutic efficacy against tumors.

References:

1) National Cancer Institute. Peripheral Neuropathy Caused by Chemotherapy.

2) American Cancer Society. Chemo Brain.

3) Janelsins MC et al., J Clin Oncol 2011;29(11):1475-82

4) National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology – Fatigue Version 2.2020

5) Depression and anxiety in women with early stage breast cancer: five year observational cohort study BMJ 2005;331 doi:

6) Rugo HS et al., Effect of Scalp Cooling on Hair Loss Among Women Undergoing Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer: The SCALP Randomized Clinical Trial.JAMA 2017 Dec 12;318(22):2230-2240.

7) Wong R et al., A pilot study of acupuncture-induced peripheral neuropathy in patients with breast cancer receiving chemotherapy. Integr Cancer Ther 2006;5(3):238-43.

8) National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology – Fatigue Version 2.2020

*Note: this site does not provide medical opinions or diagnosis and should not be relied upon instead of receiving medical attention from a licensed medical professional.

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