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Life After Breast Cancer
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Provides information on all forms of cancer and offers numerous brochures and publications for patients and healthcare professionals. Their breast cancer page helps users to answer critical questions about breast cancer.
A community based information and education resource about breast health, breast cancer risk factors, diagnosis and treatment. About Breast Cancer provides scientific articles, recent news, a 24/7 chat room, drug and payment info, and links to more than 600 sites sorted by subject.
The patient information website of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides oncologist-approved information on more than 50 types of cancer and their treatments, clinical trials, coping and side effects.
Breast Cancer Action's site includes fact sheets, conference coverage, email alerts and information on a safer, non-toxic home.
Organization identifies and advocates for elimination of the environmental and other preventable causes of breast cancer.
The Feminist Majority Foundation's site on breast cancer contains critical information that separates myth from reality, links to breast cancer hotlines, an extensive list of internet resources, suggestions on actions you can take to support breast cancer research, and information on clinical trials of possible treatments.
The Breast Cancer Network is a non-profit clearinghouse for information on the detection and treatment of breast cancer. It contains the latest news including a searchable database and articles on breast cancer, as well as hundreds of links to other breast cancer related sites and resources on the Internet. Other features include support information and treatment centers categorized by state.
Includes over 2,000 pages of understandable information on all areas of breast cancer. All content on the site is reviewed by members of's Professional Advisory Board, which is made up of over 50 doctors, nurses, researchers, and other experts from a range of disciplines.
Cosmetic Executive Women's mission serves women, their employers, coworkers and caregivers and offers a variety of articles, news, charts, checklists, tips and a community of experts, patients, and survivors to help women continue to work through treatment. The site includes helpful information regarding how to deal with stress, traveling with cancer, and a "What to Do" area for employers when an employee is diagnosed with cancer.
Includes a variety of information on breast cancer as well as links to services from CancerCare, a national nonprofit agency.
Includes educational newsletters, transcripts of programs, a survivors helpline and information about special events.
A leading resource for information and education about breast cancer, and an advocate for the needs and concerns of breast cancer patients and survivors, the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations' (NABCO) site includes links, a newsletter, fact sheets, info for caregivers and more.
The largest breast cancer advocacy group in the U.S., NBCC and its sister organization, the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund, work to educate and train individuals to be effective activists and to influence the public policies that affect breast cancer research and treatment.
This U.S. government site provides information on breast cancer treatment, screening, prevention, genetics, clinical trials and supportive care.
This comprehensive site covers such topics as risk factors, diagnosis, staging, treatment, after-treatment care and breast cancer financial and insurance issues.
Web site offers breast cancer information, publications and links to the organizations affiliate chapters.
International network of survivors and supporters dedicated to issues unique to young women and breast cancer. YSC seeks to educate the medical, research, breast cancer and legislative communities to address breast cancer in women 40 and under.
Episode number: 

Those of us who have never had cancer most likely think that on the day treatment is finished, the breast cancer survivor can jump up and down for joy.  It's easy to think that when the treatment's over, cancer's over and – voilà! – life returns to normal.  Reality, as is often the case, can be quite different.

Adjusting to life after having breast cancer can be a long, arduous road. This episode of Second Opinion looks at the struggles breast cancer patients face returning to life as they knew it before diagnosis. 

  • From the moment of diagnosis, through all the ups and downs of treatment, a breast cancer patient operates in crisis mode. That becomes their standard way of functioning and switching to a day-to-day life without crisis can actually feel wrong.  There's always a nagging feeling they should still be doing something to continue the fight, but they're left without a plan. 

  • Along with cancer comes a heightened sense of vulnerability and a diminished sense of control.  Unfortunately, women continue to live with uncertainly and fear even after treatment.  Their questions – "Am I cured?  Will I have a recurrence?  Will I survive a recurrence?" – are unanswerable. 

  • Surgery, radiotherapy and, in particular, chemotherapy are physically grueling, leaving women with little emotional and physical energy to spare.  Many expect to recover rapidly, but find they feel unwell and exhausted for a frustratingly long time.  A general rule of thumb is that it takes approximately as long as the total duration of treatment to really feel well again.

  • The effects of the therapy don't necessarily stop when therapy stops.  Physical changes – the result of surgery or the side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy – can persist.

  • Finally, having any potentially life threatening experience often pushes people into intense introspection.  Some women cling to things that are familiar while others open themselves to new ideas and experiences.  Some women experience a diminished sense of self worth while others learn to value themselves more highly.  Some change in ways that strain their relationships and some in ways that strengthen them.  

Despite the challenges, it's possible to rebuild a really good life after breast cancer.  Read on for ways to do just that.


Life After Breast Cancer: Quick Facts

  • When breast cancers are discovered at an early, "localized" stage and treated (the current standard of treatment for early-stage breast cancer is lumpectomy followed by radiation), there is a 97 percent rate of five-year survival.

  • Approximately 80% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are detected in the early stages of the disease.

  • Over two million breast cancer survivors are alive in the U.S. today.

  • 25 percent of women are likely to have a recurrence in their lifetime.

  • Approximately 33 percent of women with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer experience a recurrence.  Over half of these occur more than five years after surgery.

  • Chemoprevention drugs, like Tamoxifen, are proving to be very effective in preventing a recurrence of cancer in patients with hormone-receptor positive breast cancer. 

  • The primary cause of death in women who have had breast cancer is not cancer; it's cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for women over 50.

Ask Your Doctor

This list of questions is a good starting point for discussion with your doctor. However, it is not a comprehensive list.

About reducing recurrence:

  • Can my cancer recur even if I've had a mastectomy or a lumpectomy?
  • What are the chances of my cancer coming back?
  • Are there things I can do to prevent a recurrence of my cancer?
    • Medications?
    • Lifestyle changes?
  • What cancer screening tests should I have and how often?
  • Am I at risk for any other cancers and what can I do to reduce that risk?
  • If I reach the five-year-mark and am still cancer free can my cancer still recur?

About follow-up care:

  • After I finish my treatment, what kind of follow-up care will I receive? For what length of time?
  • What symptoms should I be on the lookout for that might mean that my cancer has returned?
  • How will ongoing treatment affect me?
  • Are there any long-term side effects of my treatment of which I should be aware?
  • When can I begin a regular exercise program?

About breast reconstruction:

  • What is the average length of time from mastectomy to the end of breast reconstruction?
  • What types of reconstruction are available? What type is best for me?
  • What results can I expect from reconstruction?
    • Will it match my remaining breast?
    • Will it feel natural?
    • Will I have feeling?
  • What complications could occur?
  • How long is the average recovery time?
  • How much pain should I expect?
  • Will fluctuations in my weight affect my reconstructed breast?

Key Point 1

After surgery and immediate therapy for breast cancer, patients still have a lot of emotional and physical healing to do.  The effects of breast cancer and treatment will continue after the initial treatment ends. 

What defines a survivor?  And what kind of future can a breast cancer survivor expect?  Well, the answer to both questions depends.  Many factors contribute to how a woman feels, both emotionally and physically.

It's not uncommon for a woman to feel an emotional letdown once treatment is over.  The crisis is over, but a lingering sense of anxiety remains.  New stressors can enter the picture, too. Friends and family might have unrealistic expectations about how fast everyone concerned can return to their former lives.  Plus, after facing one of life's greatest challenges some woman find their "before" life goals no longer fit.  

Successfully negotiating the process takes courage, humor and a large measure of patience, starting with some realistic expectations. 

It's not possible to "flip a switch" and immediately go back to a former life at full throttle.  The body is in repair mode and women have to pace themselves.  In fact, it may take a year or more to regain a sufficient level of energy and sense of well being. 

While there's a huge relief in being done with treatment, it can also be frightening.  Women worry that cancer cells may remain and, without ongoing treatment, will be free to flourish and grow.  They may experience "separation anxiety" from their oncologist.  Every headache, cough or pain can take on ominous significance.  The truth is a regular schedule of follow-up visits with your primary care physician is fine, and perhaps even better for you.  According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, there's no difference in long term outcomes between ongoing surveillance by an oncologist and a primary care physician.  And, a primary care physician's role is to take care of the whole person. 

In the first year of recovery, women need an extra level of comfort and reassurance in other areas as well. 

They must cope with the longer-term physical effects of treatment.  For instance, even after tissue sparing surgery or reconstruction, breasts usually look different than they did before.  They feel different after radiation.  Some women experience lymphedema and chronic pain in areas that have been radiated.  Mental changes, or "chemobrain," can result in problems with memory and the ability to focus.  And ongoing treatments to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer, like tamoxifen, can have their own set of effects.

Returning to sex and intimacy can be intimidating.  Some women have enormous concerns related to body image and self-esteem.   Some may have been thrown into early menopause and experience all the associated sexual issues such as vaginal dryness, reduced libido and much less or absent response in places in the body that used to be hypersensitive.  They have to relearn what works for them.

Life after breast cancer is, indeed, a different part of life and getting used to whatever it will be takes a while.  The journey's easier when women:

  • Are honest and open with their loved ones about what they feel
  • Lean on others for the help they need
  • Learn to care for themselves the way they care for others

Key Point 2

Women work through issues related to breast cancer in different ways.  The best thing a woman who has had breast cancer can do is to take the same routine health maintenance steps recommended for all of us. 

After surviving breast cancer, most women find that "normal" is usually not what it was before. In fact, many speak about finding their "new normal."   One of the major issues in achieving that is developing a plan and a philosophy around fears that the cancer might recur.

Yes, women who have had breast cancer are at risk for getting it again.  However, while about 25 percent of women are likely to have a recurrence in their lifetime, it's important to realize that this also means that 75 percent of them won't develop cancer again.

Many factors contribute to breast cancer recurrence so the risk of recurrence is different for every woman.  Women should talk to their doctors about their personal prognosis.

The good news is that the trends are going in the right direction.  The breast cancer death rate is dropping as more women get regular mammograms and doctors detect cancers at earlier stages when treatments are most successful. Localized cancer that has not spread to lymph nodes or other locations has a 5-year survival rate of 97 percent. And today, chemoprevention drugs, like Tamoxifen, are proving to be very effective in preventing a recurrence of cancer in patients with hormone-receptor positive breast cancer. 

There are many steps women can take to improve their chances of staying healthy. 

The first is to fully understand their prognosis for recurrence, the potential long term side effects of their treatment and all associated options.  If a woman's history is suspicious for metastasis or long-term treatment side effects are expected to be significant, more intense monitoring may be recommended. 
Breast cancer survivors should be religious about adhering to a regular schedule for well doctor visits, including those for clinical breast exams and mammograms.  Research has shown that survivors who get a new primary tumor in either breast have the same prognosis as any other person with a new primary cancer, so early detection is crucial.  And, just like everybody else, breast cancer patients and survivors still need Pap smears as well as screening for other diseases. 

Most importantly, women must refocus on taking care of their general health.  It's a fact.  The primary cause of death in women who have had breast cancer is not cancer; it's cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for women over 50.  If women work toward a healthy lifestyle – following a balanced diet and maintaining an appropriate weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, and getting appropriate sleep – they've got it all covered.  While healthy living can't guarantee a disease-free life, it goes a long way toward optimizing the odds.


Key Point 3

Surveillance for lingering physical and emotional affects of breast cancer becomes part of a patient's lifelong routine.  But that does not mean she shouldn't live a full life.  

Breast cancer survivors will tell you that healing is not an event, but a journey with many stops and starts along the way. 

The primary concern of most survivors is to be reassured that the cancer won't recur – that they can, at some point, stop looking over their shoulders.  Five-year survival rates are the most frequently-published data because 50% of breast cancer recurrences develop in the first three years after diagnosis.  But, breast cancer can recur even after twenty years, and the well-known propensity for delayed onset of metastatic disease with breast cancer makes it a lifelong issue.  That means that women must learn to cope with a sense of uncertainty and lack of control that may diminish over time but never completely goes away. 

Other emotional issues can be almost as challenging.  As many as 30 percent of women who have had breast cancer suffer from prolonged anxiety and depression.  For some women, the breasts are an essential source of female self-image. Cancer of the breast may seriously affect their perception of identity.  They may experience feelings of decreased attractiveness and fear that their partners will abandon them.  Survivors can experience profound feelings of guilt.  Women worry that they may have done something to cause the disease, that they may have passed a genetic predisposition for the disease to their daughters, that they have been a burden to their caregivers and even that they survived the disease and others didn't.

Finally, continuing physical effects like problems with sexual function, fertility, pregnancy, menopause, and lymphedema can be draining.  A new study reports that although most breast cancer survivors do not experience long-term fatigue, one in five still feel tired up to ten years after diagnosis.

How do women get through it all and create a really good life for themselves?  Survivors who make the transition have several things in common.

  • They confide in someone, whether a partner, a friend or a professional, about their feelings.  People who keep their anguish to themselves tend to develop more symptoms and suffer more pain than those who share their feelings.  

  • They recognize (and internalize) that even really healthy people get breast cancer.  They are not to blame.

  • They recognize (and internalize) that their breasts do not equate to who they are. 

  • They allow themselves to grieve; then they get up, dust themselves off, and persevere.

  • They build stronger relationships their partners, their children and their friends through open and honest communication.

  • They only attempt to control what they can control and let the other stuff go.

Amazingly, some women come to believe their breast cancer was a "gift."  They find strength in themselves that they never knew existed.  They learn empathy for others to a degree they never expected.  They learn how much other people care about them.  They learn to embrace each day and live in the moment.  They seek and find new meaning in their lives.   In short, they triumph over breast cancer.

Medline Plus

Medline Description: 

Conduct an off-site search for Life After Breast Cancer information from MedlinePlus.  These up-to-date search results are based on search terms specific to Second OpinionKey Points.

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