Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment: What They’re Really Like

From chemo brain to all that nausea, patients and survivors share their experiences.

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After people learn they have breast cancer, one of the first things they worry about is what the treatment will feel like: How bad will the nausea from chemo be? Will I have to lose my hair? Is chemo brain really a thing?

No matter what treatment for breast cancer you get, the truth is that in order to kill the cancer, you’re going to have to feel worse (and sometimes, way, way  worse) for awhile. While not everyone experiences every side effect of chemo and radiation for breast cancer, common symptoms include fatigue, nausea, memory loss, pain, and menopause, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The most important thing you can do to in advance of treatment is be prepared. Ask your doctors what to expect in the hours, days, and weeks after a certain treatment. Talk to other patients to hear about their experiences and what they were really like. Here, HealthiNation spoke to breast cancer survivors for a candid look at treatment side effects and how they really feel.

It’s okay to feel lousy

“It’s important to remember there’s a lot of medication that is put into your body. There are yucky side effects from it. It’s—honestly that is the truth—there are so many yucky side effects, and it’s okay to feel grumpy, and it’s okay to feel lousy, because all this medication is running through you.”
—Christine, diagnosed at 42

Think of the unexpected positives

“Unfortunately I’ve gotten all the worst side effects. I get nausea all week. I get dizzy. I get headaches. The first two days or so, I’m kind of disoriented. I have to sit and think out the positives of each thing, so for example, losing my hair. The best thing about it has been taking a shower takes five minutes now.”
—Alyssa, diagnosed at 23

Prepare to be uncomfortable

“I lost all of my hair and went into a chemo-induced menopause at 44, so while I was sporting my wigs, I was getting hot flashes at the same time.”
—Theresa, diagnosed at 44

Fatigue is inevitable

“I was always tired. I was always tired with the chemo.”
—Doris, diagnosed at 37, 47, and 54

Some side effects can be treated

“I have to say: the nausea—I was so afraid of the nausea. Nowadays? Very expensive, but the anti-nausea medication is unbelievable. No nausea at all.”
—Theresa, diagnosed at 44

The most frustrating side effect

“The one side effect no one warned me about was chemo brain, and that’s what I would actually tell you was—for me—probably the most frustrating side effect. I had to write things down that I wouldn’t normally have to write down to remember. My sister told me I repeated myself all the time.”
—Sally, diagnosed at 40

Treatment will affect your everyday life

“They said that I would have very minimal side effects from it, and that I could continue living my everyday life like normal. I had the complete opposite experience. I had terrible, terrible nausea every day. I just couldn’t even get off the couch. There were days when I had to call my husband and ask him to leave work early just so I could get to the bathroom. So it was a completely different scenario from what I was presented, and that made me feel weak.”
—Rosanna, diagnosed at 31

It’s not always how it looks on TV

“I didn’t get skinny from chemo, which was annoying. I was really thinking I had finally found the diet of choice, but—you don’t get skinny from chemo. That’s just on TV. You do lose your hair, though. That is true.”
—Nicole, diagnosed at 36

Some last long after treatment

“The two markings that radiation left on me—there are two tattoo marks—those were things that I wasn’t expecting to have daily reminders of after cancer.”
—Christine, diagnosed at 42

It’ll grow back

“You lose your hair, and it’ll grow back—but as long as the cancer doesn’t grow back.”
—Theresa, diagnosed at 44

Chemo is hard, but you have to do it

“I did chemo for six months. By month four, my mom had to come and pull me, and say, ‘You have to go.’ And it was hard. At 36 years old, there’s so much life ahead that you have to do everything you can do in your power to not have this come back. You have to do it. For yourself. For your family. It’s important.”
—Nicole, diagnosed at 36

A very special thanks to Susan G. Komen Greater New York City.