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Breast Cancer Treatment Complications Can Last for Years

?A U.S.-based medical research team working along with an Australian cancer research group studied women with invasive, unilateral breast cancer for a period of six years and found that the many different and usually very unpleasant side effects of breast cancer treatment can last for many years if they are not addressed early and aggressively with ongoing rehabilitation and exercise programs designed specifically for cancer survivors.

A new editorial published in the journal Cancer that was conducted by a research team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that there are many different complications women can experience after chemotherapy, surgery, radiation treatment and other therapies to treat breast cancer, and those effects can last for years after treatment has concluded.

Although many cancer patients have been led to believe that the unpleasant side effects of breast cancer treatment will only last as long as the patients are in active treatment, the reality is that breast cancer treatment issues can actually linger on for years. The team’s findings showed that over than 60% of breast cancer survivors surveyed in the study reported they experienced at least one treatment-related complication that lasted six years after their diagnosis

In order to assess the physical and functional complications of current cancer treatment therapies, a U.S.-based research team headed by Kathryn Schmitz, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Perelman School, worked with a separate Australian cancer research team to study nearly 300 Australian women who had invasive, unilateral breast cancer. Throughout the six-year study, the researchers examined the women’s post-surgical complications, skin reactions to radiation therapy, upper-body symptoms, lymphedema (fluid retention), weight gain and fatigue. At the end of the sixth year, the researchers found that over 60% of the women continued to experience at least one post treatment problem, and another 30% had two problems lingering on long after their treatment had concluded. The only piece of good news was that although most of the post-treatment problems showed up within the first year following treatment, most of them also decreased in severity over the course of the study.

The researchers noted that the issue of lingering post-cancer treatment side effects was probably exacerbated by the fact that many oncologists and surgeons who treat cancer patients are often less likely to prescribe ongoing physical rehabilitation to ensure their patients make a complete recovery, than non-cancer specialists like orthopedists and cardiologists usually do. Instead, breast cancer treatments are likely to be a fragmented mix of different therapies at different hospitals and clinics.

Schmitz said the team’s recent work was one of the first comprehensive studies to ever really look at the true severity and scope of post-treatment problems suffered by breast cancer patients, and that the findings show an immediate need for better overall monitoring and rehabilitation services for all of them regardless of the specific types of treatments the women had been prescribed. In conclusion, the study showed that most of the problems women experience following treatment for breast cancer can be greatly reduced or completely prevented when they are addressed early and aggressively with ongoing rehabilitation and exercise programs. Until the changes are fully adopted by more doctors and current cancer survivorship programs in the U.S., the researchers suggest that all breast cancer survivors should press their doctors for access to physical therapy and exercise programs on their own.

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