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  • Symptom management for breast cancer


    Side effects of treatment can vary. Some people will experience a few side effects, others will have more.

    Nerve pain

    Some people have long term nerve pain after surgery, particularly mastectomy and axillary dissection. This pain may feel like pins and needles. Nerve pain usually settles within a few weeks. If it’s ongoing, speak to your doctor about ways to manage the pain.


    Lymphoedema is a swelling of part of the body, usually a limb such as the arm. When lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, lymph fluid may not be able to drain properly. This causes fluid build-up resulting in swelling.

    Lymphoedema can occur as a result of some cancer treatments such as after radiotherapy to the armpit or surgery to remove axillary lymph nodes. People who have had surgery followed by radiotherapy to the armpit are more at risk.

    Signs of lymphoedema include swelling, heaviness or fullness in the arm; redness and skin warmth. These signs may begin gradually, and may come and go. Some people experience pain or fever, which may mean an infection in the arm with lymphoedema. If you have swelling, see your doctor as soon as possible. Symptoms are easier to manage if lymphoedema is picked up and treated early.

    Preventing and treating lymphoedema

    Lymphoedema can develop months or years after treatment – some people who are at risk never develop it.

    In many hospitals, a lymphoedema specialist will assess you before you have surgery. Some hospitals have specialist physiotherapists who can work with you to reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema. You can do simple exercises such as shoulder rolls, elbow bends and hand clenching.

    Swelling can be reduced by wearing a professionally-fitted elastic sleeve or by massage from a trained lymphoedema drainage therapist, physiotherapist, nurse or occupational therapist.

    Long periods of physical inactivity, such as travelling, may contribute to lymphoedema. Talk to your doctor or specialist about wearing a compression sleeve during air, rail or car travel.

    You can download a fact sheet about lymphoedema from Breast Cancer Network Australia or Cancer Australia's Lymphoedema – what you need to know booklet. The Australasian Lymphology Association website, www.lymphoedema.org.au, has a directory of lymphoedema practitioners.

    Reducing your risk of lymphoedema

    What to do

    • use a gentle moisturiser to keep skin healthy 
    • wear shoes, gloves or long sleeves when gardening or washing dishes
    • wear loose clothing and jewellery
    • clean any cuts (on the affected side of your body) straightaway and see a doctor if the area becomes hot, red or swollen
    • be as physically active as you can
    • eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy body weight

    What to avoid

    • sunburn
    • cuts, burns and insect bites
    • tattoos or piercings
    • repetitive tasks and heavy lifting for long periods of time
    • blood pressure cuffs and having injections on the affected side
    • saunas, hot baths and spas


    This feels like a tight cord running from your armpit down the inner arm, sometimes to the palm of your hand. Cording, also known as axillary web syndrome, can happen weeks or months after surgery or lymph node dissection. It is due to hardened lymph vessels. Some people are able to see and feel raised cord-like structures across their arm, and this can restrict arm movement. Cording usually gets better over a few months. Gentle stretching during the first couple of weeks after surgery can help. If the cording doesn’t seem to be improving or is getting worse, try physiotherapy or massage. Laser treatment from a lymphoedema specialist may also help.

    Menopause and fertility

    Some treatments for early breast cancer cause your periods to stop (menopause) and can affect your ability to become pregnant (fertility). Chemotherapy drugs usually cause an interruption to a woman’s periods. This may be temporary or permanent. If your periods stop permanently, this is known as early menopause.

    Some of the symptoms of menopause include hot flushes, sweats, trouble sleeping, vaginal dryness, lower sex drive, tiredness, dry skin, aches and pains, mood swings, poor concentration, weight gain and osteoporosis. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Talk to your doctor or breast care nurse about ways to manage any symptoms.


    Women who experience menopause, especially if it is earlier than usual, are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis. This is the thinning of the bones. Bone weakness can lead to pain and fractures.

    To prevent osteoporosis:

    • do regular weight-bearing or resistance exercise with weights
    • make healthy eating choices, which include low-fat dairy and high-calcium foods
    • talk to your doctor about medication.

    For more information, go to www.osteoporosis.org.au or call the toll free information line on
    1800 242 141.

    If preserving your fertility is important to you, talk to your doctor before treatment starts about your options and ask for a referral to a fertility clinic. If you learn you may be permanently infertile, you may feel a great sense of loss. You might be devastated that you won’t have your own children or additional children, and you might worry about the impact of this on your relationship. It’s normal to feel this way even if your family is complete.

    To find out more, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of Cancer Council’s Fertility and Cancer booklet. 

    Using a breast prosthesis

    A breast prosthesis (breast form) is a synthetic breast or part of a breast that appears real when worn in a bra or under clothing. It can be used after a mastectomy or after breast conserving surgery.

    In the first couple of months after surgery, you may choose to wear a temporary soft breast form. This will be more comfortable next to your scar. A free bra and temporary soft breast form is available through Breast Cancer Network Australia or talk to your breast care nurse or treatment team. You can also receive a temporary soft breast form from Cancer Council SA. Speak to your breast care nurse or call Cancer Council 13 11 20

    Once your scar has healed (usually by six weeks), it should be comfortable to be fitted for a permanent breast prosthesis. This is usually made from silicone and has the shape, feel and weight of a natural breast. A prosthesis can help you maintain good posture and prevent neck and back problems.

    The cost of a permanent prosthesis ranges from about $250–$450. Financial assistance towards the cost of a breast prosthesis is available from Medicare. Women with private health insurance may be able to get a further rebate for a prosthesis depending on their cover. More information on how to buy a breast form and what to expect at a fitting is available from Cancer Council. Call 13 11 20 for a copy of Cancer Council's Breast Prostheses and Reconstruction booklet. 

    Helpful resources

    YWCA Encore – This free 8-week information and exercise program is for women who have had breast cancer surgery. It uses floor and pool exercises to strengthen and tone the arms, shoulders and chest. Call 1800 305 150 or see www.ywcaencore.org.au for more information.

    Look Good…Feel Better – This free program teaches techniques to help restore appearance, confidence and self-image during treatment. Call 1800 650 960 or see lgfb.org.au for more information. 

    My Journey Kit – Breast Cancer Network Australia’s My Journey Kit contains information, resources and tips for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Call 1800 500 258 or see www.bcna.org.au for more information.

    This website page was last reviewed and updated February 2016.

    Information last reviewed August 2014 by: Dr Carolyn Cho, Breast and General Surgeon, Surgical Oncology, Deakin, ACT; Lynn Buglar, Breast Physician, BreastScreen, NSW; Mena Crew, Consumer; Elizabeth Jacobson, Consumer; Jane Marsh, Clinical Manager, Breast Centre, Brian Fricker Oncology Centre and Burnside War Memorial Hospital, SA; Marie Murdoch, Breast Care Nurse, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; and Marion Strong, Clinical Nurse Consultant Breast Care Nurse and Cancer Care Coordinator, Toowoomba Hospital, QLD.

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