Preventing migraine in breast cancer patients involves tailored treatment plans and addressing triggers like hormonal changes and stress. Medications and lifestyle adjustments can play a role in preventing and treating headaches and migraine.
The primary difference between a severe headache and a migraine attack is that a migraine is debilitating. An attack may last for several hours or up to three days at a time. Symptoms like nausea or vomiting, light and sound sensitivity and even an inability to tolerate movement can accompany a migraine attack. Patients may also develop warning signs of an impending migraine attack through aura. Visual auras include fleeting bright lights or zigzag lines, while non-visual auras show up as tingling, numbness or abnormal fatigue.
Connecting breast cancer and migraine
Migraine sufferers may actually have a lower risk of developing breast cancer. The consensus is that headaches are only a cancer symptom when the disease reaches the brain. While breast cancer itself does not appear to cause migraine, the treatments and stress cancer patients undergo may have an impact on the frequency of migraine attacks and headaches.
During a migraine attack, blood vessels in the brain constrict and dilate, which causes intense head pain. Neurochemical changes then trigger inflammation and pain signals, adding to the debilitating symptoms patients experience. Hormonal therapy, which breast and prostate cancer patients may receive alongside chemotherapy, leads to hormonal fluctuations that can trigger headaches and migraine attacks. Several additional factors may play a role:
- Stress and anxiety: A breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can lead to heightened tension, triggering migraine.
- Medication side effects: Some medications not included in the hormonal or chemotherapy sessions may have migraine-inducing side effects or can aggravate migraine symptoms in patients who already suffer from them.
- Lifestyle factors: Shifting sleep patterns, dietary changes and less physical activity during treatment can contribute to migraine attacks.
Identify the type of headache
An essential part of cancer treatment is managing side effects, which may include headaches and migraine symptoms. Identifying the type of headache can help healthcare providers offer the proper treatment. Primary headaches, which include migraine, cluster headaches and tension headaches, don’t have an external cause. Secondary headaches are caused by medical conditions or medicine. When describing headache pain, make sure to mention the following variables:
- Location: Specify if the pain is in the forehead, temples, back of the neck or over the eyes.
- Quality: Describe how the headache feels, whether it is just pressure, a dull ache or a throbbing, stabbing or piercing pain.
- Severity: Identify if the headache is mild, severe or incapacitating and add any symptoms you are experiencing.
A health care provider will analyze these patterns. Should the pattern, headaches or migraines need further investigation, they may order blood tests, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to rule out any additional health problems. Ask your health care team if headaches or migraine attacks are a common side effect of any prescription medications and whether they result from cancer or cancer treatment.
How to treat migraine headaches when you have cancer
Raising awareness among breast cancer patients about migraine triggers and symptoms can lead to early recognition and better management. Some treatments that can cause headaches and migraine include chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, a few targeted therapies and immunotherapy. Patients should keep a diary to identify potential external migraine triggers and what helps ease them. To see if there is a pattern, note the timing, frequency and duration alongside any triggers.
The toll of emotional and physical stress during cancer treatment can lead to severe headaches. Try relaxation techniques like meditation and progressive muscle relaxation to help lessen the frequency of migraine attacks.
How to prevent headaches
Avoid or limit exposure to triggers outside of your breast cancer treatment that contribute to migraines and headaches. Breast cancer patients already have many circumstantial sources of stress, making it important to incorporate emotional health management into a headache-prevention strategy. Regular exercises like yoga, prioritizing self-care, getting social support or counseling sessions and breast cancer support groups can help alleviate some of the unique stressors patients face, which can contribute to headaches and migraine attacks. A few additional ways to prevent headaches:
- Avoid smoking: For some people, nicotine can contribute to migraine and headaches.
- Get enough sleep: A total of eight hours of sleep is crucial for cancer patients to support their treatment progress.
- Intentionally relax: A few times a day, stretch your neck, arms, legs and back to help your muscles relax.
- Eat regularly: Missing a meal can lead to a headache. Avoid migraine-triggering foods, such as foods with tyramine (like aged cheeses) and foods made with nitrates (like lunch meats).
- Avoid caffeine: Additional caffeine can trigger headaches, so limiting intake or cutting out caffeine-containing soda, coffee or chocolate entirely is best.
- Drink enough water and electrolytes: Stay hydrated throughout the day, especially if the medication causes any nausea and vomiting.
- Medication adherence: Follow the treatments doctors prescribe and take medications consistently.
How to manage headaches
For cancer patients, experiencing debilitating headaches and migraines can add to an already demanding physical and emotional toll. It is vital to continue to practice self-care when headaches develop and to be proactive about pain management during an attack. Ask for help when pain levels rise. Loved ones can bring you your medication, assist you in moving to a darkened room for sensory relief, or provide physical and moral support. Other solutions to managing a headache:
- Cool compress: Use an ice pack or cool washcloth on the forehead, nape of the neck or temples to ease the pain. Some patients may use a cool compress on the forehead, with a warm compress on the neck or posterior part of the head.
- Remove any stimuli: Lie in a quiet, dimly lit room and try to relax.
- See a physiotherapist: A physio can provide some helpful exercises or strategies that are patient-specific to manage headaches and migraines in real time.
- Medication: Use prescription medication to treat symptoms.
- Hydrate: As with prevention, hydrating is vital to managing a headache or migraine attack.
- Ginger: Consume ginger by brewing it as a tea or drinking it as a concentrate supplement to help with pain and nausea.
- Avoid triggers: Stay away from anything that triggers headaches, as these can worsen symptoms.
- Doctor follow-up: Attend regular check-ups and discuss changes in symptoms, frequency or intensity of headaches and migraine attacks.
In the journey of managing cancer and its associated challenges, effective headache and migraine management becomes an essential aspect of comprehensive care. Migraine sufferers have a hypersensitive nervous system that overreacts to stimuli, leading to acute pain and neurological dysfunction. The trigeminal nerve, which branches throughout the head and face, is a central conductor of this pain.
CEFALY uses external trigeminal nerve stimulation (eTNS) to stimulate and desensitize this nerve, helping to relieve migraine pain and reduce migraine frequency over time.
Start your migraine treatment journey
The connection between breast cancer and migraine involves hormonal influences, stress, medicinal side effects, lifestyle factors, shared pathways, treatment challenges, preventative strategies and more. Migraine prevention plans and patient education can help alleviate symptoms of migraine during immunotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.
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