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After Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

This information explains what to expect after you complete chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Most people are relieved when they finish chemotherapy, but some people may feel somewhat unsure. For months, you have seen your doctor and nurse very often. They could answer your questions and reassure you at each visit. Now, you won't see them as often but you will likely continue to have questions and concerns. Just because you have finished chemotherapy, it does not mean that you are “on your own.” Your doctor and nurses will continue to care for you in the years to come.

You may have questions about some of the lingering side effects. Many side effects will go away soon after chemotherapy is done. Others may take weeks or months to go away.

Blood Counts

Your white blood cell blood count will go down after your last dose of chemotherapy, but should begin to return to normal in about 10 to 14 days. Your red blood cell may also go down but should return to normal around the same time. 

Hair Loss

If you lost your hair,  you should start to see it growing back 14 to 21 days after your last chemotherapy treatment. How quickly or slowly your hair grows back varies from person to person.

When your hair grows back, it may be a different color or texture. It may be curly or straight. These changes are normal.

Neuropathy

Neuropathy is numbness or tingling in your hands and feet. It may get worse after you have your last chemotherapy treatment. Most patients notice improvement 2 to 4 months after chemotherapy, but it can take up to a year to fully go away. For some people, it never completely goes away. 

Nausea, Vomiting, and Taste Changes

You may experience nausea and vomiting after your last chemotherapy treatment but it should go away with 2 to 3 weeks. Your appetite may continue to be affected due to taste changes you may have experienced during your treatment. Your taste should return to normal within 1 to 2 months after chemotherapy. Try sucking on hard lemon candies until your taste returns to normal.

Fatigue

Your fatigue will improve over time. You may have lost some muscle and strength during your treatment and will need to gradually build up your strength again. Walking each day will help with this.

You may also want to consider complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, massage, and yoga, which have been shown to decrease fatigue. The Integrative Medicine Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) offers these services. Call (646) 888-0800 to make an appointment. 

“Chemo Brain” and Stress

“Chemo brain” is a very common complaint during and after chemotherapy treatment. People describe it as mental changes that may include poor memory, difficulty finding words, and the inability to focus and concentrate. This can interfere with your life, including caring for your family and managing your job.

Some things that help with chemo brain include keeping a calendar, writing everything down, and exercising your brain with puzzles and reading. Try to focus on one task at a time instead of multitasking.

Try to avoid having high expectations for yourself because this can add to your stress level and frustration. Most people say it takes 6 to 12 months before they truly feel like themselves again.

Fear of Recurrence

Fear of cancer coming back (recurrence) is a very common issue for many people who have finished chemotherapy treatment. You may become concerned about new symptoms you are experiencing and wonder if they are related to breast cancer.

It is important for you to report any new, persistent symptoms to your doctor. Many of these issues are normal parts of healing and your body returning to a “new normal” after breast cancer treatment; however, your team is always available for you to discuss your concerns or fears. You can call or send electronic messages to your doctor or nurse through MyMSK (https://my.mskcc.org), also referred to as the patient portal. It may also be helpful to speak with a therapist or to join a support group. 

Follow-up Care

You will see your doctor every 6 months for the next 5 years. You may see your doctor more or less often depending on your recovery. If you have any questions or concerns, call your doctor's office at any time.

At each visit, your medical team will ask about any problems. You will have a physical exam, lab work (which may include tumor markers, depending on your stage of cancer) and any necessary imaging tests. 

It is important to follow-up with your primary care doctor for routine health care. This includes blood pressure checks, cholesterol monitoring, and standard lab work. It is important that your doctors at MSK have any information about your health. Please give us your primary care doctor’s contact information.

After about 5 years, your care may be transferred to a survivorship nurse practitioner (SNP). An SNP is a member of the MSK Breast Cancer team and works closely with your doctor. As your breast cancer-related needs decrease, your follow-up care may be transferred from MSK to your local primary care doctor. The timing for this depends on your particular breast cancer and your treatment. It usually occurs about 10 years after treatment.