Breast cancer patients' lives 'being ruined by side effects of chemo' that leaves them exhausted


PUBLISHED: 05:00, 27 June 2016 | UPDATED: 09:45, 27 June 2016


Thousands of women with breast cancer are struggling to lead normal lives because the side effects of chemotherapy are so debilitating, research shows.

Many are unable to go about their daily routines, pop out to the shops, climb the stairs, or even walk across a room as it leaves them so physically exhausted.

The study found a fifth of women over 65 were unable to live independently a year after starting treatment, experiencing what is termed ‘functional decline’.

Experts said it was due to the crippling toll of chemotherapy which causes unpleasant side effects including exhaustion, sickness and susceptibility to infections. 


Although the treatment kills cancer cells, it also destroys fast-growing, healthy cells in the blood, skin, stomach and hair.

Campaigners say doctors do not offer enough care or support to women to cope with these effects as they are so focused on tackling the cancer.

Up to one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetimes and there are more than 50,000 new cases diagnosed in Britain every year.

Dr Cynthia Owusu, an assistant professor at the University Hospitals, in Cleveland, Ohio, and her team undertook a detailed study of 184 women over 65 who had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.

After 12 months of treatment – mainly chemotherapy – a fifth were unable to carry out basic daily tasks. 

These included walking across a room, light housework, shopping, kneeling or standing long enough to have a shower.

Dr Owusu said it was largely due to ‘chemotherapy toxicity’ which essentially means the treatment is poisoning the body.

Seven women died within the year, due to the side effects of the treatment or as a result of another illness other than breast cancer.

In rare cases chemotherapy can be fatal and it causes damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver.

But the authors said if women were given more help to cope with the side effects, they would be more likely to survive.

Their bodies would be more resilient and they would be more inclined to stick with treatment. 

British experts say the NHS does not do enough to support patients through the side effects and emotional toll of cancer.

Dr Fran Woodard, of Macmillan Cancer Support said: ‘This new research shows just how important it is for people with cancer to be properly supported both during and after treatment.

‘For many people life is never the same again after a cancer diagnosis, no matter what stage their cancer is diagnosed at. 

'Beyond treating the cancer itself, the whole person has to be considered, including other health concerns and also the emotional impact of diagnosis and treatment.

‘As more and more people survive their cancer diagnosis, it is vital that people have access to a personalised package of care and support at the earliest opportunity so they are able to have as good a quality of life as possible from the point of diagnosis onwards.’

Rachel Rawson, senior clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, said: ‘Almost half of people diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK are women aged 65 and over, so research like this is crucial.

‘Particularly as it helps us understand how treatment impacts the lives of older women who may have existing health issues to contend with. 

'This research may show us how these women could be better supported in future, both during and after treatment.’

Today’s study, published in the journal Cancer, concludes: ‘It is imperative for efforts to be focused on improving the functional health of at-risk populations.

‘Such efforts in the long term may improve treatment tolerance, functional and overall health and ultimately translate into improved breast cancer survival.’

The authors said doctors should encourage women to exercise for an hour-and-a-half a week.

Physical activity has been repeatedly shown to help reduce side effects of chemotherapy and it also boosts survival rates.

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