April 23, 2014
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Cancer

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Life after breast cancer

It's the end of your treatment schedule. You've made it! What's next?

Whether your treatment was radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, or a combination of these, and whether it's been 6 weeks or 9 months since diagnosis, it is a day you've envisioned for quite some time. I'm done! I survived!

For some, the transition from treatment to recovery can be quite traumatic. You've been fighting a battle that you never wanted to have to fight. Your body has survived a significant amount of injury and your brain has had to cope with exposure to new medical terms and the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis.

This is a time when your life changes: no longer one doctor appointment after another; now you're re-engaging with day-to-day life. You now feel like a survivor. But what is life after breast cancer like?

Health issues

You will be given follow-up appointments at the clinic, usually to see your oncologist but sometimes to see other specialists such as a radiation oncologist. These physicians will monitor you closely in the first few years after treatment to make sure you are recovering well.

You may be on medications to prevent recurrence. Women with estrogen-sensitive tumours may be prescribed an anti-estrogen medication such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex® and generics), letrozole (Femara®), or anastrozole (Arimidex®). These are generally recommended to be taken for 5 years. You may be continuing to attend clinic to receive doses of trastuzumab (Herceptin®).

Recovery doesn't happen overnight - you need to be prepared for continuing tiredness and fatigue. You'll need plenty of rest. If you lost your hair, it will begin to grow back, but may not be the same texture or colour that it was before treatment. Scars will soften and fade and skin reddened and irritated by radiation treatments will begin to heal.

Chemotherapy may have put you into early menopause. Now you will find yourself at risk of some health concerns that you didn't think you had to worry about. Find out more in our article on menopause.

Some women find that chemotherapy has made them forgetful and they have difficulty concentrating. This is often referred to as "chemo-brain." Now that you may be adding new activities and returning to more hectic schedules, these effects may seem more pronounced. The time for these after-effects to subside and energy levels to come back to normal varies from person to person. Exercise, as tolerated, can help to improve energy levels.

Lymphedema

If you have had surgery to remove lymph nodes from under the arm, you will be at risk for lymphedema.

Emotional/spiritual

You have probably had the worst scare of your life and you have survived. Many women find themselves traumatized by the effects of a whirlwind of doctor appointments and have difficulty dealing emotionally with the diagnosis and the physical effects of treatment.

Right after treatment ends, you can feel lost and very scared of the cancer returning. Maybe you are asking yourself questions about life's meaning. Some women have feelings of sadness, loneliness, and difficulty sleeping, and question why this happened to them. This is all a very normal response to a traumatic event. If you have feelings like this, talk to someone. Find a support group or at least let your doctor know about how you feel.

Ruth Ackerman


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