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The Effects of Breast Cancer on the Body

A breast cancer diagnosis means dealing with physical changes and challenges that you may not have expected. While the stress of breast cancer affects the body and mind, there are ways that you can manage these changes. 

Physical Changes After Breast Surgery 

The various breast cancer surgeries available will affect your body in different ways. Any surgery carries risks, including bleeding and infection, but is usually required to remove cancerous tumours. 

The most common types of surgeries are:

Lumpectomy – Lumpectomy is a procedure whereby tumours are removed locally, without removing the entire breast. The tumour, along with some tissue around it, is removed, which may lead to some scarring or changes in the symmetry of your breasts.

Mastectomy – This is the more comprehensive procedure associated with breast cancer and is the most physically and mentally challenging. If the tumour is very large, the entire breast will be removed. This includes the removal of lobules, tissue, ducts, skin, the nipple and areola. In many cases, women undergoing a mastectomy choose to remove both breasts at once, especially if there is a strong history of breast cancer in the family.

Lymph node removal – Regardless of what surgery you are having, your doctor may remove the lymph nodes found under your arm as well, as a precautionary measure. This procedure will likely leave a scar at the incision sites. Many women will have slight pain and discomfort after the procedure, as well as decreased mobility in the affected arm for a while after the surgery.

Physical Changes During Treatment

During treatment, you’re likely to experience a range of changes in your body, although the good news is that most of these are temporary.

Common effects of breast cancer treatment include:

Hair loss – Hair loss is a common side effect to breast cancer chemotherapy. This hair loss during chemotherapy starts a few weeks after your treatment begins and is almost always temporary. It is caused by the treatment attacking the hair follicle cells. The hair should regrow once you finish your treatment, and sometimes even before. Hair loss can be a scary experience to go through, so it is important to realise that it won’t last forever.

Hormonal changes – Breast cancer treatment can cause hormonal changes, which results in symptoms like irregular periods, night sweats, hot flashes, weight gain, loss of sex drive, and joint pain. In many cases, especially for women younger than 40, your body will resume regular hormone production after treatment. Older women may never regain normal hormone production and will enter menopause.

Skin changes – Radiation and chemotherapy can cause changes to your skin. Some breast cancer patients can experience darkening or redness in their skin, similar to sunburn. This can be mild or severe, depending on how your body reacts to the treatment. Your skin should slowly recover and return to its natural state once your treatment is over.

Swelling – Having breast cancer surgery or radiation treatment puts you at risk of developing lymphoedema, a condition in which fluid collects in different parts of your body. This causes swelling in the breasts, arms and hands. Ask your doctor about reducing your risk of lymphoedema.

Weight gain – Weight gain is common during breast cancer treatment. While mild weight gain is common and usually temporary, significant weight gain during treatment is linked to the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. 

How to Adjust to These Changes

If you have one or both breasts removed during your breast cancer surgery, reconstruction is an option that many women choose as a way to get as close to their former appearance as possible. Reconstruction is a common procedure that can be done using either your own tissue or silicone or water-filled implants. These surgeries can either be done during your breast removal surgery or after recovery. 

If you don’t want to go through reconstructive surgery, prosthetics are a good alternative. Also known as a breast form, a prosthesis is used to fill the space where your breast was, in your bra or bathing suit. These breast forms come in various shapes, sizes and materials to suit the needs of all women.

In addition to the changes in your breasts, there are ways to adjust to the other changes to your body.

Manage weight gain by eating a healthy diet packed with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Additionally, limit your sugar intake, drink lots of water and when you are feeling well enough, get some mild physical exercise.

To cope with hair loss, there are many natural-looking wigs available today, in a choice of different lengths, shades, colours and styles. Some wigs are even made with real hair. If you prefer to avoid wigs, you may choose to wear a scarf or hat – or even completely shave your head, to give yourself a fresh start once your chemotherapy treatment is over.

To ease any discomfort from radiation, wear loose-fitting clothes that don’t irritate your skin. Ice packs and heating pads can ease symptoms, and you can ask your doctor about different recommended creams or ointments to help soothe your skin.

The physical changes to your body can sometimes seem overwhelming but understand that most of these symptoms are temporary and will soon pass. If you are struggling with body image or depression, please reach out to family, friends or your doctor, to get the support you need and deserve.