Recovery from Breast Cancer

Aftercare and Survivorship

Some cancer facilities have comprehensive aftercare and survivorship programs to help you coordinate your follow-up care and make the transition back to normal life. Others may not, in which case you may have to coordinate your own care and advocate on your own behalf.

Recovery from breast cancer is different for each person, and depends on the type of treatment you received, whether the cancer is contained, and other aspects of your physical and emotional health.

While you may feel relieved to be finished with treatment, you may also experience more difficult emotions. Some people have trouble believing that the cancer is really gone, so it may take them a while before they have the confidence to return to their normal activities. Others may find it difficult to deal with the possibility that the cancer could come back. In addition to new physical and emotional challenges after cancer treatment, you may also be facing new financial hurdles. These experiences are a normal part of being a cancer survivor.

Your emotions after breast cancer treatment

The following are common emotions you may experience after breast cancer treatment:

Becoming a Survivor

Whether you’ve just been diagnosed or have been out of treatment for years, you’re a survivor. Learn more about what it means to be a cancer survivor in Your Guide to Cancer Care.

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Insecurity
  • Sadness or depression
  • Uncertainty
  • Embarrassment
  • Guilt
  • Anger
  • Loss of physical and sexual confidence

It’s natural to feel worried, vulnerable, or other strong emotions after cancer treatment. But if negative feelings or anxieties about your health are interfering with your day-to-day life, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional.

A good place to start is to talk to your oncologist or another member of your care team. He or she can refer you to a licensed counselor who specializes in working with cancer survivors, either individually or in a group setting. The social worker at the hospital where you were treated can also provide a recommendation.

Fear of recurrence

One of the biggest challenges that people who have finished treatment face is dealing with the fear of the cancer coming back. The fact that you are no longer actively receiving treatments, or that your medical status is not being watched as closely by your healthcare team as before can leave you feeling vulnerable.

Every survivor deals with fear of recurrence differently. You may recognize that there are certain times when stressful feelings surface — for instance, before follow-up appointments or if you notice possible symptoms. You may also find that your worries diminish as time passes.

One way to deal with your anxieties is to make a clear follow-up plan with your doctor and stick with it. With recurrence, early detection is key. While you can’t predict whether the cancer will come back, finding it early can greatly improve your odds.

Follow-up care

Here are some ways you can help make sure you can return to your normal activities as quickly as possible:

  • Ask you doctor exactly what you can expect in terms of long-term or permanent side effects or limitations. Some problems may arise months or even years after treatment ends.
  • Find out what symptoms may be a sign of a recurrence or progression of the disease and whom you should contact if you’re concerned.
  • Word to the Wise

    Follow-up appointments can be stressful, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead. Write down any questions you have. You might also want to bring a family member or friend along for moral support. Depending on the tests you have done, you may need to have transportation home.

  • Ask your physical therapist or rehabilitation specialist about arm and shoulder exercises you can perform to help you regain range of motion and reduce stiffness in the neck and back.
  • As you regain strength, slowly increase your level of physical activity. Once you’re well enough, you can make exercise part of your regular routine.
  • Ask your care providers about things you can do at home to keep yourself healthy, such as eating a wholesome diet or taking supplements to protect against potential long-term side effects.
  • Maintain a healthy weight, particularly because excess weight is associated with breast cancer.
  • Follow your doctor’s recommendations precisely regarding follow-up appointments. Many people schedule a check-up every few months in the first year or two after treatment.
  • Get regular mammograms in both breasts if you had breast-preserving surgery, and in the opposite breast if you had a full mastectomy.

Symptoms to watch for

While the following may be symptoms of many health concerns other than cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor immediately if you experience:

  • Any changes in the treated area or in the untreated breast
  • Unexplained pain
  • Loss of appetite or weight changes
  • Changes in menstrual cycle or unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Persistent or unusual digestive problems
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing or hoarseness
  • Backaches

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