Stage III triple-negative breast cancer survivor: How I handled treatment side effects

After being diagnosed with stage III triple-negative breast cancer in the summer of 2017, I was treated at MD Anderson with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation therapy.

I experienced a number of side effects from those treatments, including skin burns, lymphedema, fatigue and bone pain. Most of them are resolved now, but thankfully, the ones that remain aren’t very bad.

Dealing with lymphedema and radiation burns

The most painful side effect I experienced was probably radiation burns. Those left my skin feeling pretty raw, but applying a salve and medicated pads helped a lot. I also experienced bone pain from the Neulasta® shots I received during chemo to keep my white blood cell counts up. My joints hurt like I had the flu for several days after each injection, but exercise reduced that to just one.

The most annoying side effect I experienced was probably lymphedema, which is when fluid builds up around tissues where lymph nodes have been removed. I developed that in my left arm after having 34 lymph nodes removed surgically from my chest and neck area. I could usually get the swelling down by stretching and wearing a compression sleeve. Staying hydrated helped, too. I run every day, so I drink a lot of water, and I noticed when my water intake was low, the lymphedema was worse.

The hardest part of my breast cancer treatment

The hardest part of my treatment was undoubtedly chemotherapy. My cancer was very aggressive, so my doctors hit me with the hardest chemo they had and it absolutely wiped me out. It was really rough.

I only felt nauseous once, and I never threw up. But by the time I got home from day one of each infusion, I was so exhausted I’d just collapse. And I’d be out of commission for almost a week. There are some days I still don’t remember at all, and many times I thought I wouldn’t make it.

Fighting exhaustion with exercise

I was so tired during my treatment that I often didn’t want to get out of bed. And I didn’t feel like myself for a long time. But my faith wouldn’t let me quit. I was very active prior to starting breast cancer treatment, so I agreed to participate in a clinical trial under Dr. David Ramirez to see how exercise impacted side effects.

As part of the trial, I had to do something physically active at least five days a week. Seven was just too much. I was so weak at the beginning, I started by taking just 10 steps. The next day, I’d take 20. Then I’d try to get to the end of my driveway, then down the block. Eventually, I got back up to three miles.

The third round of chemo was the hardest. I decided I was just too worn out to exercise. So, I only worked out two days a week during that round. By the fourth round, the exhaustion had subsided. And the remaining rounds of chemo were dramatically better.

I finished up all of my treatments on Jan. 15, 2018. I have a lot of scarring now from the radiation, and I still struggle a little with fatigue. But I learned I have no evidence of disease in May. That was the only thing I’d been wanting to hear for the previous year. So don’t give up. This is only temporary.

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