Health & Fitness

Life after breast cancer treatment

cancer

Young African American woman holding pink cancer ribbon smiling happy and positive, thumb up doing excellent and approval sign. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Summary

  • Once the doctor says “go back to your life,” fear creeps in as thoughts of cancer coming back take over.
  • A good way to start your life after breast cancer is to make sure you eat right.
  • It also helps to get involved as a volunteer to educate and help promote breast cancer awareness in your local community.

Many breast cancer patients look forward to the day their treatment will end, and they are declared “cancer-free.”

But for some women, once the doctor says “go back to your life,” fear creeps in as thoughts of cancer coming back take over. This is referred to as post-treatment syndrome and it affects survivors.

How can you take care of yourself after breast cancer treatment?

For starters, take charge of your health by living a healthy lifestyle. A good way to start your life after breast cancer is to make sure you eat right, stay active, sleep adequately, reduce stress, and avoid smoking environments.

However, do not forget to look out for possible signs and symptoms such as a new lump in the breast, an ache, or pain that is new and does not go away after three weeks. These are signs and symptoms that you should report to your doctor immediately after you spot them.

It also helps to get involved as a volunteer to educate and help promote breast cancer awareness in your local community.

What are some of the common concerns of survivors?

● Lymphedema

This condition is characterised by chronic swelling of the arm or hand. It can develop weeks, months, or many years after treatment and can vary in severity. About 15 to 20 percent of women who are treated for breast cancer eventually develop lymphedema. Although there are no scientific studies to show that women can prevent its occurrence, survivors can take many precautions, most of which are aimed at preventing infection or injury to the affected arm.

● Sex and Sexuality

For many women, intimacy becomes a strain following a breast cancer diagnosis. For many women, breasts play an important role in sexuality. After months of treatment, women may feel disconnected from the pleasure their bodies once provided them.

It is important to talk to a healthcare provider for any symptoms, treatment, and even support.

Breast cancer treatment can also induce early menopause, which triggers physiological changes such as vaginal dryness and low libido that interfere with sexual pleasure.

● Fertility after breast cancer

Physicians and patients have long questioned whether pregnancy after diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer could lead to an increased chance of cancer recurring.

There is now some evidence to shed light on this question: women who are treated for breast cancer can become pregnant without lowering their chances for long-term survival.

Even though post-treatment pregnancy may not affect survival, there is still a range of issues that breast cancer survivors often consider when thinking about having a child. Some women may not want to risk becoming pregnant when they may not live long enough to raise the child.

● Post-menopause/ Hormone Therapy

Many women take post-menopausal hormone therapy (also known as hormone replacement therapy) to relieve menopausal symptoms and prevent osteoporosis and possibly heart disease.

However, this type of therapy can also raise the risk of developing breast cancer and endometrial cancer. The carcinogenic effect of post-menopausal hormone therapy is a special concern for women who have been treated for breast cancer since they are already at elevated risk for second breast cancer.

● Fear of Recurrence and Second Cancers

About five to 10 percent of women with stage one, or two breast cancer will have a local recurrence after initial treatment, meaning cancer will return to the breast, chest wall, or axillary lymph nodes. Moreover, once a woman has had breast cancer, she has an increased risk of developing new breast cancer, called second primary breast cancer. This risk is about 0.5 to 1.0 percent per year.

For those who have a breast cancer gene (BRCA) mutation, or very strong family history, this risk is even higher, and there is also an increased risk of developing other cancers, particularly ovarian cancer.

To protect yourself from a recurrence or second cancer, it is important to seek regular check-ups so that any lump developing is detected as early as possible.

Most women survive breast cancer

Though breast cancer is life-threatening and treatment is often very challenging, most women diagnosed with the disease will survive a decade or longer after treatment.

Prof. Wasike is a consultant General and Breast Surgeon at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi