'Sick' of Cancer Treatments

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Being declared cancer-free is the most important goal for someone being treated for breast cancer. However, that doesn’t come without an enduring struggle with side effects resulting from a prescribed drug protocol.

Different treatments may be associated with certain side effects. However, the likelihood, type and severity vary greatly with each patient, according to healthcare experts.

By being informed, you can talk to your physician about managing any challenges that arise. Tools for relief include other medications, vitamins and stress-alleviating techniques along with exercise – the remedy for many ills.

Although it’s helpful to know you could have side effects, it’s not beneficial to focus on potential issues, especially before you take a medication, according to Dr. Tara Sanft, assistant professor of medicine (Medical Oncology) at the Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.

“Most people deal with side effects pretty well. I tell patients they don’t know whether they’ll suffer a side effect until they take the medication,” Dr. Sanft says.

Your drug treatment may fall into one of three categories: hormone-blocking therapy, chemotherapy or targeted drugs.

Hormone-blocking therapy may be used to treat breast cancers that are sensitive to hormones.

Younger women who are treated with these drugs go into menopause. Anti-depressant drugs can be prescribed for hot flashes that may accompany menopause. The drugs may not eliminate the hot flashes, but make them more manageable, according to the pharmacist.

Breast cancer patients who are past menopause may be treated with aromatase inhibitors.

“Joint pain can be very common in women on aromatase inhibitors,” Dr. Sanft says. Finding medications to relieve the pain is difficult; tolerating pain is the goal, she says.

Massage therapy and exercise are possibilities.
Along with joint pain, decreasing bone density is associated with aromatase inhibitors.

“We can treat women if they get into a dangerous zone. Weight-bearing exercise staves off bone loss and helps improve quality of life,” Dr. Sanft says.

Vitamin D may have the potential to both reduce joint pain and to promote bone health. All women going through treatment should have their levels checked.

Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Hair loss may be your worry if you’re undergoing chemotherapy.

The good news is that your hair does grow back, though the texture and even color may be different after treatment is concluded.

Many women report they experience “chemo brain,” the perception of not being as sharp as before, according to Dr. Sanft.

Learning techniques for focusing and taking art therapy classes for mind stimulation may help.

Fatigue may be harder to deal with.

“Fatigue is common and women may underestimate it. Women think the treatment is over and they should feel normal. It can take months; up to a year for women to resume their energy levels,” Dr. Sanft says.

Counter-intuitive as it seems, exercise is an antidote.

“Exercise can actually improve fatigue and may speed up recovery,” Dr. Sanft says.

Physical activity is also being studied for its role in helping while chemotherapy is still going on. Again, as with vitamin D, the key is finding the optimal amount of exercise for each patient.

Targeted drug treatment, which works against specific cancer cell abnormalities, is an interesting and growing area.

Symptoms vary, but the more common complaints include diarrhea, headaches and heart muscle changes, she says.
Many doctors recommend over-the-counter medications to combat diarrhea.

But be prudent using an OTC headache remedy. It could mask a fever that’s part of an infection.

Changes to heart muscle cells may require regular consultations with a cardiologist. Prescription medications are available to help with this, too.
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