People who received radiation or chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer may experience side effects as long as a decade afterward, according to the results of a study in the oncology journal The Breast. These side effects may include dizziness, forgetfulness, anxiety, depression and cardiac dysfunction, reports DocWire News.

To examine the long-term impact of radiation and chemotherapy on physiological health and wellness, researchers led by S.W.M.C. Maass, PhD, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, recruited 350 female breast cancer survivors five or more years removed from treatment.

“Various long-term symptoms can manifest after breast cancer treatment, but we wanted to clarify whether these are more frequent among long-term breast cancer survivors than matched controls and if they are associated with certain diagnoses,” the researchers wrote of the impetus for the study.

The study participants provided access to their medical records, self-reported lingering symptoms, completed the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and underwent an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) to assess the function of the heart’s left ventricle. (A reduction in left ventricular ejection fraction, a measurement of the amount of blood pumped out with each heartbeat, is a common manifestation of chemotherapy- or radiation-induced cardiac dysfunction.) The results were then compared to those of controls of a similar age who did not have a history of breast cancer.

The survivors were found to be statistically more likely to report and exhibit dysfunctional physical and mental characteristics and behaviors including:

  • Nocturia (frequent nighttime urination)
  • Dizziness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Appetite loss
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Another side effect, intermittent claudication—painful leg cramping following exercise—correlated with cardiac dysfunction in the study. Anxiety and depression were also more common in long-term survivors.

The type of treatment was also found to affect side effect risk. Women who had been treated with chemotherapy in place of or along with radiation, for example, experienced nocturia and forgetfulness at higher rates but dizziness at lower rates than women who had been treated with radiation alone.

In closing, the researchers identified several possible treatments for breast cancer treatment side effects. Cognitive therapy and mindfulness, they wrote, have been clinically proved to decrease forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. But their final recommendation was not for patients but for medical professionals. Oncologists should aim to be transparent about the risks of long-term side effects among people who have survived breast cancer.

“The possibility of these symptoms and treatments should also be included in the information given to patients at the time of a breast cancer diagnosis to keep the patient informed and to help them preempt and deal with their symptoms,” the researchers wrote.

With an annual death toll of 40,900 people in the United States alone, breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women in the United States and top cause of death among women worldwide.

Experiencing anxiety or other forms of psychological distress following cancer treatment? Click here for a list of resources that can help. And to read the story of one woman who turned her life around after a breast cancer diagnosis, click here.