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Side effects from breast cancer chemotherapy and radiotherapy

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be effective treatments for breast cancer, but can cause side effects and discomfort. These include:

Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite is a common side effect of breast cancer treatment. Try these tips to ensure you are eating a healthy diet during treatment:

  • Eat several small meals during the day, instead of three large meals.
  • Try an "instant breakfast" mix or other nutritional shakes.
  • Eat the largest meal when you are most hungry, which varies from person to person.
  • Drink beverages either half an hour before or after meals so they do not interfere with your appetite.
  • Consider moderate exercise to help increase your appetite.

Nausea and vomiting

Some, but not all, cancer patients experience nausea. You can take drugs called anti-emetics before chemotherapy to reduce nausea. Keep track of when you have nausea. Nausea can occur immediately after treatment or several days later.

  • Eat small meals frequently and avoid fatty, greasy foods and citrus if these trigger nausea.
  • Try foods at room temperature instead of very hot or cold.
  • When nauseous, try bland foods like crackers, gelatine, crushed ice, rice, plain mashed potatoes, or apple sauce.

Seek medical advice if you have severe nausea or frequent vomiting. If you vomit, wait an hour before eating or drinking anything. Then, begin with crushed ice and gradually add foods. Camomile or ginger root tea, or ginger containing foods can sometimes help settle your stomach.

Weakness and fatigue

Weakness and fatigue can have many causes, including the treatment itself, worry or depression, not eating, pain, inactivity, and low blood counts.

  • Make sure you get enough rest. Sleep at least eight hours a night, and try to lie down during the day to rest. Avoid caffeine if it interferes with sleep.
  • Exercise. Short walks can actually increase appetite and energy. Exercise can help you rest better, even if you are feeling fatigued.
  • Be choosy about activities. Get help from family and friends with errands and other jobs.
  • If you feel pain, let your doctor know. There is no need to suffer in silence.
  • Eat a diet high in iron if advised.
  • If fatigue is caused by low red blood cell counts ( anaemia), you may be given a growth factor called erythropoietin, which stimulates bone marrow to make red blood cells. It can be given by injection, which can be continued at home. Patients receiving this are carefully monitored for rashes and blood pressure.

Mouth soreness

Sometimes, a sore mouth or throat can be related to breast cancer treatment. Check with your doctor or dentist to rule out other causes of mouth pain.

  • Ask your doctor about medicines to reduce mouth soreness.
  • Choose soft foods that will not irritate your mouth, such as scrambled eggs, macaroni cheese, pureed cooked vegetables and bananas.
  • Cut foods into small pieces.
  • Avoid citrus, spicy, or salty foods and rough foods if these make soreness worse.
  • Rinse your mouth regularly with salt water
  • Clean your teeth twice a day and after meals with a soft tooth brush
  • You may find chewing fresh pineapple keeps your mouth fresh and clear of debris
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