Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes pain and stiffness in muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The condition affects about 2 percent of the U.S. adult population — around 4 million people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women are twice as likely as men to develop fibromyalgia. Though researchers have found no connection between fibromyalgia and breast cancer, if you’re living with both conditions, you may wonder whether undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer will worsen your fibromyalgia symptoms.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes fibromyalgia, but there’s no definitive evidence that chemotherapy increases your risk of developing the condition. However, anxiety, depression, or having another disease that causes pain may increase fibromyalgia risk. Additionally, many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia overlap with the side effects of chemotherapy, such as widespread pain, fatigue, and brain fog.
If you’re simultaneously living with fibromyalgia while undergoing chemotherapy and are experiencing some of the aforementioned overlapping symptoms, your health care provider may have difficulty pinpointing what’s causing them. Taking steps to improve your quality of life throughout treatment will help you feel your best.
While there’s no research definitively evaluating whether chemotherapy worsens fibromyalgia symptoms, it’s possible that having both at once may cause more severe symptoms.
Scientists believe that people with fibromyalgia may be more sensitive to pain. This condition can lead to aching, burning, or throbbing pain throughout different areas of the body. If you have fibromyalgia, you may also feel:
Similarly, chemotherapy can make you more sensitive to touch, cause peripheral neuropathy, and make your muscles and joints feel painful.
In addition, people with fibromyalgia often don’t sleep well and feel overwhelmingly tired, making it difficult to accomplish daily tasks — something that’s also common among people with breast cancer, especially if they’re receiving chemotherapy.
A MyBCTeam member explained how chemotherapy also left them feeling this way: “I started chemo, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel tired. I feel tired every day even though I sleep well at night.”
Having fibromyalgia and undergoing chemotherapy can each make you feel less mentally sharp than usual, and both can make you more sensitive to lights, sounds, and smells. Both fibromyalgia and chemotherapy can also cause digestive issues.
Just as the symptoms and side effects of chemo and fibromyalgia overlap, so do some of the best treatment approaches. Consider trying some of these strategies to help ease your symptoms.
It’s critical to focus on conserving your energy and prioritizing rest. Although light exercise can be beneficial, now isn’t the time to overdo it. One MyBCTeam member suggested, “Start saving energy by taking shortcuts on some things or getting help from other people with shopping and housework. Put chairs around the house so that you can easily stop and rest if you need to. Plan ahead where possible, and allow plenty of time for travel to appointments so you are not rushing.”
If you have trouble sleeping at night, talk to your doctor to find solutions. Sometimes antidepressants or other medications can help you sleep better. In addition, incorporating midday naps can help with fatigue and give you another round of energy to get through the day.
“I worked out of my home during chemo,” shared a MyBCTeam member. “I recall needing to crash every afternoon during chemo sometime between 3 and 4 p.m. Just a half hour helped.”
Managing pain is also crucial for people with fibromyalgia, particularly while undergoing chemotherapy. One member of MyBCTeam explained, “The thing that bothers me most is pain that comes in different places when there’s no reason for pain to be there. But that’s the way fibro is. If the pain gets too bad, I take 800 milligrams of ibuprofen (Motrin), and that helps for a few hours. It seems to bother me most on cold, damp days. I call them ‘fibro days,’” they said.
It’s essential to talk to your health care team about pain management. Avoid taking over-the-counter medications without first discussing your treatment plan with your providers. Chemotherapy medications may interact with other drugs, so it’s best to explore pain-management strategies with your oncologist when you have multiple health conditions. To complement your treatment, they may also refer you to support services like meditation classes, music or art therapy, acupuncture, or massage therapy.
Eating healthy food is another crucial aspect of living well with fibromyalgia, especially when undergoing chemo. Since both fibromyalgia and chemo can impact your digestive system and appetite, you may want to meet with a registered dietitian nutritionist to learn ways to get the calories and nutrients you need to maintain your strength while managing gastrointestinal symptoms.
Anti-inflammatory diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, may be beneficial for getting the nutrition you need when undergoing chemo while living with fibromyalgia.
Both fibromyalgia and breast cancer can cause anxiety and depression. Although having a strong network of family and friends can be helpful, mental health professionals can sometimes support you in ways your loved ones can’t. “I have a therapist, and I love it!” said a MyBCTeam member. “My husband of 28 years is amazing, but there are things I don’t tell him. I tell my therapist, though, and it lets me get it out. She helps me process my feelings.”
More than 350 MyBCTeam members report having fibromyalgia. One member shared, “My fibro is acting up. Sometimes I can’t tell the side effects from chemo and the filgrastim (Neupogen) shots versus my fibro.”
Chemotherapy for breast cancer is a challenging journey that can leave you emotionally and physically stressed. And unfortunately, with fibromyalgia, stress can make symptoms worse. Health experts believe that traumatic events can increase your risk of fibromyalgia. Getting diagnosed with breast cancer as well as undergoing mastectomy, axillary lymph node surgery, or harsh chemotherapy could certainly be considered traumatic.
“I feel like I have to be strong when I don’t feel like it because everyone keeps telling me I am so strong,” said another member. “They don’t know how hard it is for me to get out of bed, get dressed, keep a decent house, cook for my kids, and just be a mom when I don’t feel like it.”
Pacing yourself is a must with fibromyalgia, especially if you’re getting chemotherapy at the same time. Resist the urge to overextend yourself when you need a break. Ask for help, and learn to accept it without guilt.
On MyBCTeam — the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones — more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their tips with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Do you struggle with chronic pain and chronic fatigue due to breast cancer treatment or fibromyalgia symptoms? Have you found effective treatment options for pain relief aside from pain medication? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.