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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Coping with Breast Cancer Treatment

On this week's Wellness Wednesday, Washington DC VA Medical Center Oncologist, Anita Aggarwal, shares advice for coping with the side-effects of breast cancer treatment.

Washington DC VA Medical Center turns pink during October in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Washington DC VA Medical Center offers evidence based, multidisciplinary care to eligible Veterans diagnosed with breast cancer. In addition to surgery, chemotherapies, radiation, endocrine blockade, and prevention, Veterans facing a breast cancer diagnosis will also receive support coping with the challenges cancer treatment can present through cancer coordinators, nutritionists, physiotherapy help, social worker support, and psychologists.

“Soon after a diagnosis is confirmed, we begin to connect the dots to provide them with every aspect of care they could possibly need as we move into the treatment phase,” said Washington DC VA Medical Center Oncologist, Anita Aggarwal, M.D. “Cancer diagnosis and treatments can be very devastating and draining to the patient and their family, so I always start by asking what kind of support they have at home, and how I can add to that support system before we even discuss treatment plans.”

Information about a patient’s home or work life can help the primary care team develop a treatment plan that is best suited for each individual. Once a treatment plan is recommended, Aggarwal explains all the side effects and what to expect during treatment.

“It helps to remind the patients that they are in control, not the cancer or the treatment,” she said. “Everything is new and scary, but we are here to advise and help, whatever path they choose to take.”

If a patient opts for chemotherapy, Aggarwal shows them around the infusion center and introduce them to nursing staff who will care for them throughout treatment. She said it is vital to establish clear and open communication from day one. 

“Chemo saves lives, but it can be deadly if you do not understand which side effects are normal, and which are dangerous,” she said. “Chemo reduces the white cell count, weakening the immune system and causing infections that might seem normal to become life-threatening if not treated right away. That is why it is so important to ask questions and inform their providers of any side-effects they experience.

Aggarwal encourages all chemo patients to take their temperature daily and to seek medical help immediately if a fever presents or if something feels off.

Other common side effects of chemo may include: 

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of hair
  • Darkening of skin
  • Constipation/Diarrhea
  • Numbness/tingling of hands and toes

To combat these side effects, Aggarwal provides chemo patients with medication, nutritional support, resources for support groups and tips for maintaining their lifestyle. For patients who have not yet entered menopause, she also educates them on the side effects chemo can have on their reproductive system.

“If a patient is childbearing age and would like to have children, we can send them to have their eggs preserved. We do the same thing for our male breast cancer patients who could suffer from a reduced sperm count due to chemo,” she said. “This enables us to provide them with the cancer treatment they need now, while preserving their ability to have a family later.”

In addition to educating and guiding Veterans with breast cancer through the medical side of treatment, Aggarwal reminds patients that she is a part of their support system too.

“Fighting cancer is hard, but you are never alone,” she said. “The first thing I tell them is to keep living their life. Listen to your body, it will let you know how much you can do. If you’re able to, go to work, exercise, see family and friends. But be smart about it. If someone is sick, don’t hug or kiss them. Clean and prepare your food properly. Take it a day at a time and lean on us if you need to. We are here to support and guide you to the other side of your diagnosis.”