Breast Cancer and Peripheral Neuropathy: What You Need to Know

What is peripheral neuropathy?

Peripheral neuropathy refers to the pain, discomfort, or numbness that can occur in one or more areas of the body when those areas are affected by nerve damage. There are a wide range of causes of neuropathy, including bad burns and diabetes, but most people don’t know that breast cancer treatments can also cause nerve damage.

Chemotherapy medications are a major source of peripheral neuropathy in breast cancer patients, although radiation and surgery can also cause nerve damage. Chemotherapy drugs such as nab-paclitaxel, carboplatin, eribulin, vinorelbine, paclitaxel, docetaxel, and vincristine can all be sources of this issue. As the medication spreads throughout the body, it often damages nerves, causing symptoms ranging from numbness to severe pain.

Other symptoms of this nerve damage may include weakness, burning, sudden stabbing pain, clumsiness, trouble with motor skills, constipation, decreased reflexes, trouble swallowing, and more. Symptoms may start as soon as treatment does, and the type and severity may depend on which nerves are damaged. Symptoms may continue to worsen over time, although this may not be the case for every cancer patient.

Photo: Adobe Stock/petzshadow
Photo: Adobe Stock/petzshadow

If you experience any of these symptoms after beginning chemotherapy treatments, contact your doctor to discuss the possibility that you may have peripheral neuropathy. Your doctor may also use electromyography, nerve conduction studies, quantitative sensory tests, lab tests, or imaging tests to investigate the possible causes of your nerve pain and the extent of the damage.

How can it be prevented?

Prevention, of course, is the best method to combat peripheral neuropathy, although what works for one person doesn’t always work for another. The good news, however, is that there are lots of things that have worked for people, so there are plenty of options to work with.

Prevention methods that some have praised for their effectiveness include vitamin E, calcium and magnesium, certain anti-seizure drugs like carbamazepine (Tegretol), certain antidepressants like venlafaxine (Effexor), glutathione (an enzyme with antioxidant properties), and more.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Alliance
Photo: Adobe Stock/Alliance

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How can it be treated?

Treatment of peripheral neuropathy in cancer patients is difficult, due to the fact that the cause of the issues is necessary as a treatment for the more pressing problem of breast cancer. The symptoms, however, are treatable.

Effective treatments will depend on which symptoms you’re experiencing but could include: physical or occupational therapy, acupuncture, manual lymph drainage, steroids, numbing patches or creams, certain antidepressant medicines and anti-seizure medicines, electrical nerve stimulation, and more.

Don’t let peripheral neuropathy control your life. Talk to your doctor about your options.

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