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Breast Cancer Treatments: Possible Complications

Medically reviewed by Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD · General Surgery · The Medical City Ortigas

Written by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza · Updated Sep 18, 2020

Breast Cancer Treatments: Possible Complications

When it comes to overcoming breast cancer, your doctor will provide you with the best treatment plan for you, which may entail a combination of different medical approaches. It may include medication, surgery, or even chemotherapy. It is important to understand each and to ask about your treatment plan in order to fully understand the risks and complications of breast cancer treatment.   

Fortunately, breast cancer is a highly curable disease with high survival rates, especially when diagnosed and treated early. However, depending on the stage and pathology of the cancer, treatment will vary from woman to woman. 

Here are some signs to watch out for.

complications of breast cancer treatment

Available Breast Cancer Treatments

Thankfully, there have been great advances in medicine and technology, offering more life-saving treatments for breast cancer patients.


Surgery is usually the primary approach to addressing breast cancer. There are two types: 

  • Mastectomy. Mastectomy is a form of surgery wherein the entire breast may be removed. Depending on the severity of the condition, one or both breasts may be affected.
  • Lumpectomy. A less drastic form of surgery is lumpectomy where only the tumor or affected portion of the breast is excised.

Some complications of this type of breast cancer treatment include:

  • Chest wall hematoma, or bleeding after surgery
  • Swelling of the chest
  • Scar tissue
  • Infection of the wound
  • Numbness of the skin overlying the breast and armpits
  • Fluid retention
  • Swelling of arms due to excision of lymph nodes
  • After surgery, some women may suffer from depression or anxiety, especially if one or both breasts are removed. Therapy is highly advised. 

    While there may be risks and some complications of breast cancer treatment, this is definitely outweighed by the positive, which is hopefully a cancer-free future. 


    Chemotherapy uses specific drugs to destroy cancerous cells in the body. While its main targets are those cancerous cells in the breast, chemotherapy affects the whole body. This is because the treatment drug is carried throughout the body via the bloodstream. 

    Chemotherapy is usually advised after a patient undergoes breast cancer surgery in order to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Cancer recurrence usually sees the disease growing faster, stronger, and more malignant the second time around. 

    When undergoing chemotherapy treatment, you may experience common side effects such as

    • Gets fatigued easily
    • Gets easily bruised
    • Increased susceptibility to infections
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Hair loss

    Should ovaries be affected by chemotherapy, menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and infertility may be experienced. 

    While chemotherapy may be successful in destroying cancerous cells, one should be prepared for complications of breast cancer treatment such as: 

    • Osteoporosis
    • Degenerative joints
    • Heart damage 
    • Increased susceptibility of infection due to low blood white blood cell counts


    Also referred to as radiation therapy, radiotherapy uses a specialized high-energy beam to target cancerous cells. This beam is able to damage a cell’s DNA, thus stopping its ability to multiply. This effectively reduces the growth of cancer cells.   

    The complications of breast cancer treatments such as radiotherapy include the following. It may cause

    • Skin discoloration and burns
    • Heart damage and disease, especially on left-sided breast tumors
    • Pneumonia
    • Secondary cancers of the skin, bone and soft tissues

    Hormone Therapy

    This treatment reduces the amount of the hormone, estrogen, in the body and blocks it from triggering hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer cells in the breast. Hormone therapy is used to shrink these cancer cells or slow their growth. This approach is only effective in cells that are hormone-receptor-positive for breast cancer. Estrogen is produced in the ovaries in premenopausal women and fat tissues in post-menopausal women. 

    As hormone therapy affects the levels of estrogen in the body, it may cause the following

  • Increased risk of osteoporosis
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Vaginal irritation
  • With every cure, one must be ready to accept the possible complications of breast cancer treatment.

    Breast cancer treatment can prolong the lives of patients and help them overcome breast cancer successfully. However, no matter what the treatment is, side effects and complications can happen anytime. In these situations, patients should consult a doctor and take the necessary measures to minimize the risk of developing more serious problems.

    Planning Your Treatment

    When planning to undergo treatment, consult your doctor, and understand the advantages, risks, and possible complications of breast cancer treatment. It is best to do additional research on your own and to take note of the questions you can ask your doctor on your next appointment. 

    Treatment plans will vary from case to case, as it depends on the type of cancer, stage, and severity of your medical condition. 

    Here are some questions to ask: 

    • What are my options?
    • Why is this the best treatment plan for me?
    • Can you explain the different phases/ steps of this treatment plan?
    • If I undergo this treatment, what are the risks?
    • What are some of the side effects and possible complications of breast cancer treatment?
    • Will my survival rate go up if I go through with this treatment instead of another?
    • What is the risk of recurrence? 
    • How will this treatment affect my long-term goals? Will it lengthen or improve my quality of life?

    As you put together your list, you may also want to take the time to re-evaluate some of your life plans and priorities. Share these with your doctors. These may include wanting to start a family of your own in the future, opting for breast reconstruction surgery, etc. Your doctor can take note of these and consider these when putting together the best treatment plan for you. 

    Seeking a Second Opinion

    Before committing to undergoing any treatment, you may also want to seek a second opinion. You may approach another doctor or specialist for their diagnosis and treatment plans. They can provide their own expert opinion on the risks and complications of breast cancer treatments. 

    By getting a second opinion, you can

    • Be more informed about your condition
    • Learn about other possible treatments that are available
    • Decide whether one treatment plan is better for you than another
    • Confirm your primary doctor’s diagnosis and treatment plan

    Mental Health Support

    In addition to consulting a breast specialist, you may want to consider approaching a mental health specialist. Breast cancer treatment does not only affect the physical, but also the emotional and psychological well-being of a person. 

    According to a study, depression can affect a woman’s survival rate. Mortality rates were 39 times higher in patients who had been diagnosed with major depression, while it was 26 times higher in patients with depressive symptoms. 

    Another study underlined the importance of psychological support and intervention. Breast cancer patients who participated in group sessions that offered guidance on how to reduce stress and improve mood, while undergoing treatment showed a 45% lower risk of cancer recurrence and 56% lower risk of dying from cancer. 

    Key Takeaways

    Breast cancer is a curable disease that can be addressed by numerous treatment options. But one should be prepared and ready for the possible complications of breast cancer treatments.

    In order to achieve better outcomes, it is best that you consult your doctor and be proactive in understanding your treatment. Having the best medical intervention as well as psychological support can significantly improve your quality of life and reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. 

    Learn more about Women’s Health here. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Mike Kenneth Go Doratan, MD

    General Surgery · The Medical City Ortigas

    Written by Kristel Dacumos-Lagorza · Updated Sep 18, 2020

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