Possible Late effects of breast cancer

Most women have side effects during and for a few weeks after treatment for breast cancer. But sometimes certain side effects may not go away and become permanent. These are called long-term effects.

Other women may develop side effects months, or even years, after treatment. We call these late effects and this includes any long-term effects too. Not everyone will have late effects.

Different treatments can cause different effects. For example, surgery and radiotherapy sometimes cause swelling in the arm (lymphoedema), or limited arm and shoulder movement. Chemotherapy can cause pins and needles in the hands and feet, called peripheral neuropathy. Certain chemotherapy drugs and a targeted therapy drug called trastuzumab may increase the risk of heart problems. Hormonal therapies can cause bone thinning.

There are things that you can do to manage late effects. Let your cancer doctor or nurse know about side effects that haven’t gone away or if you have new symptoms.

Long-term and late effects

Most women have side effects during treatment for breast cancer and for a few weeks after. Usually, these effects gradually reduce and eventually disappear. But some women may have side effects that continue or develop for months or years after treatment. There are two commonly used terms:

  • long-term effects
  • late effects.

Long-term effects begin during or shortly after treatment and don’t go away in the six months after treatment. They may go away eventually on their own, with symptoms gradually reducing for up to a year or two after treatment ends. Sometimes, long-term effects are permanent.

Late effects are a delayed reaction to treatment. They don’t appear during treatment, but can happen months or even years later.

In this information, we use the term ‘late effects’ to cover both long-term and late effects.

There are many things that can be done to manage or treat late effects. It’s important that you don’t feel you just have to put up with them.

Late effects may be minor and not affect your day-to-day life much. Or, they may be more troublesome or difficult to live with and interfere with your daily life. If you have late effects, there are usually lots of things that can help you cope with them. This will help you live life as fully as possible. Some late effects improve over time and may eventually go away on their own. 

Talking to your doctor

If treatment effects don’t go away, always let your cancer doctor or specialist nurse know. If you have any new symptoms or problems after treatment, it is also important to tell them.

The more information you give your doctor, the more likely they are to be able to help you. You may feel embarrassed talking about urinary problems or difficulties with your sex life. But doctors and nurses are very used to discussing intimate problems like this, so don’t be put off.

Some late effects symptoms may be similar to the symptoms you had when you were first diagnosed. This can be frightening and you may worry the cancer has come back.

The breast care team will assess your symptoms. They will explain whether they could be caused by your treatment. Your doctor may arrange tests to be certain about the cause of your symptoms. Sometimes symptoms are caused by other conditions not related to the cancer or its treatment.

Remember that you can arrange to see your cancer doctor or specialist nurse between appointments. And you can contact your GP at any time.

You may need support from your family, friends or a support organisation. You can also talk to one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

Treatments for breast cancer

The main treatments for breast cancer are:

Surgery and radiotherapy to the breast, especially involving the armpit (axilla), can result in:

Women who have had part of the breast removed followed by radiotherapy may find the treated breast shrinks slightly over time. If this happens, the breasts will be different sizes.

Chemotherapy may cause:

Hormonal therapies can cause:

  • side effects similar to menopausal symptoms
  • joint pain.

Targeted therapy drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin®) and some chemotherapy drugs can cause changes in the way the heart works.

Cancer treatments can also cause more general changes in how you feel. You may:

These effects may improve over time, but some can be permanent. Most women have mild treatment effects, which eventually go away over time.

Treatment for breast cancer is constantly developing. Improved treatments mean that women are now living for longer. As treatments develop, we’re learning more about late effects and how they can be managed. Doctors and researchers are trying to make sure that women get the best treatment with as few side effects as possible.