Breast Cancer

You Are a Cancer Survivor

Beast cancer survivorship doesn’t begin when you finish treatment, or when you’re cancer-free a few years down the road. Survivorship begins the moment you’re diagnosed, and you join the more than 2.5 million women in the United States that have also survived breast cancer.

As a newly diagnosed survivor, you’re probably focused on getting through your cancer treatment and coping with any side effects. Read the Side Effects section to learn more about side effects and ways to treat them.

Your Survivorship Care Plan

At the end of your primary treatment, your oncologist should develop your Survivorship Care Plan, go over it carefully with you and answer any questions you may have. If your doctor doesn’t offer to develop such a plan, ask for it.

At a minimum, the Survivorship Care Plan should include:

  • Your medical history with dates — including past health problems, how they were treated and the results
  • Your cancer history with dates — including cancer type, treatments and results, clinical trial information if you participated in one, treatment side effects and possible aftereffects, and contact information for the team that provided your care
  • A proposed schedule for follow-up care, with the name and contact information of the doctor who will provide the care

Keep your Survivorship Care Plan with your important papers. Give a copy to any health professional you see in the future, including your primary care physician.

Follow-Up Cancer Care

Your follow-up care will consist of regular appointments with your oncologist for the first years, and later this often transitions to your primary care physician. The appointments are routinely scheduled every 3 to 6 months in the beginning, with the visits stretching to every 6 to 12 months between years 3 and 5. After 5 years, it is normally an annual appointment. During each visit, tell your doctor about any problems and concerns you’ve had. In between visits, if you notice signs that may point to a recurrence, let your doctor know.

In addition to physician visits, regular mammograms are recommended every 6 to 12 months — depending on your treatment. Bone density scans are also advised for women at high risk for osteoporosis — again, depending on the type of treatment and cancer you had.

Some women’s treatment plans may include adjuvant therapies — one or more therapies that are administered after the primary treatment plan is completed. Your oncologist will discuss these options that are designed to increase long-term, cancer free survival. They may include hormone therapy if your cancer is hormone-receptor positive. Targeted therapy uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells, particularly if your tumor is HER2 positive. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy can also be used.

Many women also choose to participate in clinical trials after their initial treatment plan has concluded. There are on-going clinical trials across the United States with many testing new methods to prevent cancer recurrence or to increase long-term survival.

Physical Effects of Treatment

Treatment side effects may persist after treatment, and then eventually disappear. The most common sides effects of breast cancer treatment include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Alopecia (hair loss)
  • Early menopause
  • Lymphedema (blockage in your lymph system that causes swelling — usually in an arm or breast after surgery)
  • Osteoporosis (loss of bone density)

Emotional Issues

The end of treatment often provokes strong emotions among breast cancer survivors.

Some survivors say they emerge from treatment transformed into completely new people, loving their new lives, growing spiritually and enjoying relationships strengthened by the experience of facing cancer together.

But others may obsess about the possibility of their cancer returning, question cherished beliefs, cope with changed relationships, and struggle with body image and self-esteem issues.

If you’re like many survivors, you’ll fall somewhere in the middle, experiencing both positive and negative emotions. It’s important to tell others, including your doctor, how you feel so they can understand your experience and provide you with the help you need. You also may want to join a cancer survivors group to benefit from the experience of others.

A central issue for breast cancer survivors involves the loss of one or both breasts, and their perception that they now lack, or have lost, their sexuality. The issue of reconstruction is also a difficult decision. For many, discussions with a supportive partner or friend help heal the emotional wounds, for others, professional counseling is helpful.

Since some things are out of your control, such as whether your cancer will return, focus on the things you can control. Doing so may help you emotionally and improve your health.

For example, if your doctor approves, try brisk walking, yoga or tai chi to reduce stress and boost fitness. If you use tobacco, try to quit. Limit alcohol use. Educate yourself about healthy eating so you can maintain a healthy weight.

You also may feel better if you turn your focus outside of yourself by helping others. Many cancer survivors give back to the cancer community by volunteering at a local cancer center or with a nonprofit cancer organization.

 

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