Living with Breast Cancer
New treatment options and scientific advances are helping women with breast cancer live longer and have better outcomes. However, the journey from diagnosis to treatment and beyond is difficult, and navigating the large amount of information available about cancer is a daunting task for anyone. Learning about what to expect from your diagnosis and treatment may help ease your anxiety and teach you about ways to cope with disease and treatment-related side effects. This section is designed to provide information and resources to help you manage life before, during, and after treatment.
Being diagnosed with cancer is a scary and confusing experience. You may initially feel lost or in disbelief. It is normal to need time to adjust to your feelings and come to terms with the effect your diagnosis may have on your life. Learning about what causes breast cancer, your treatment options, and how to manage possible side effects may help empower you with the information and knowledge needed to make informed decisions.
- There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating cancer. The choice of drug and length of treatment will be tailored to you and the characteristics of your particular cancer. It is important to ask your doctor questions and make sure you understand his or her explanations. Remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question or silly concern when it comes to your health. For a list of questions to ask your doctor, please see the FAQ section.
- If your feelings of sadness and grief begin to interfere with your day-to-day activities and do not get better after a few weeks, speak with your doctor. You may be experiencing depression. Treatments are available, and you do not need to suffer in silence. Please see the FAQ section for more information.
- A support group may help you cope with your new diagnosis. You can find links to support groups in your area in the Additional Resources section.
You may experience bothersome side effects from your cancer therapy or from the breast cancer itself. It is important to remember that managing side effects is an essential component of each breast cancer patient’s care plan. Ask your doctor about what side effects you may experience with your treatment and let him or her know if you notice any new symptoms. Although the side effects you may experience largely depend on your treatment, the following side effects are common to many cancer therapies.
- Pain is commonly caused by cancer and its treatment. Work with your doctor early to develop a pain-management plan that meets your needs.
- Lymphedema is an abnormal buildup of excess fluid in specific areas of the body, most commonly in the arms and legs. This swelling is caused by interruptions or blockages in the flow of lymphatic fluid resulting from the removal of lymph nodes or from cancer and its treatment.
- Hair loss, or alopecia, is caused by some cancer treatments and usually begins within 2 weeks of starting treatment. Hair will grow back after treatment is complete.
- Diarrhea is a common side effect of some cancer treatments. Be sure to have an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication on hand before taking your cancer therapy and let your doctor know immediately if you experience diarrhea or it lasts longer than 24 hours. Stay hydrated by drinking 8–10 glasses of water and/or clear fluids per day.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that a particular diet or exercise program will aid in the treatment of cancer, physical activity and healthy eating can improve your overall health, boost your mood, and help reduce the risk of other diseases.
The following tips can help you cope with the side effects of breast cancer and its treatment.
- Maintain a healthy, varied diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Increase your fiber intake
- Limit your intake of red meat, grilled meat, or processed meat
- Exercise regularly. Aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week. Do strength training exercises at least twice a week.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit alcohol to less than 1 drink a day for women and fewer than 2 drinks a day for men
- Do not smoke
Breast cancer and its treatments may lead to changes in your appearance. Some of these changes are temporary, such as hair loss, while others are permanent, such as scars from surgery. Addressing body- image issues before they arise is one way breast cancer patients can remain in control of their illness.
- Breast reconstruction surgery is a personal decision and may be an option for some women. While most people think breast reconstruction requires silicone or saline implants, it may be possible in some cases to conserve and reshape your own breast tissue while still removing the cancerous tissue. Factors such as size and location of the tumor will determine if breast-conserving surgery is possible. Speak with your doctor about your options.
- Hair loss is possible with some cancer therapies, and losing it may affect your self-esteem and confidence. Some women use wigs, head scarves, or hats for comfort. Support groups and counseling may help you cope with hair loss.
- Breast cancer and its treatment may affect your libido and sex life. Some cancer therapies may irritate mucous membranes, making sex temporarily painful or difficult. Scarring or breast removal may impact self-esteem. Speak with your doctor about bothersome side effects. Counseling may also be beneficial in dealing with body-image issues.
- You may experience fatigue or symptoms that mimic menopause during cancer treatment, including hot flashes and weight gain. Speak with your doctor if you experience any new or worsening symptoms.
Please see Additional Resources for more advice and tips on living with breast cancer.
- American Cancer Society (ACS). Treating breast cancer. Available at cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/treatment.html
- Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Healthy lifestyle for breast cancer survivors. Available at https://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/HealthyWeightampDiet.html
- Living as a breast cancer survivor. Available at www.cancer.org/cancer/breast-cancer/living-as-a-breast-cancer-survivor.html
- Life after cancer: survivorship by the numbers. Available at www.necancer.org/resources/Documents/life-after-cancer-survivorship-by-the-numbers-infographic.pdf
- Cancer survivors network. Available at https://csn.cancer.org/
- breastcancer.org. Support groups. Available at www.breastcancer.org/treatment/comp_med/types/group
- Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Quality of life after breast cancer treatment. Available at https://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/QualityofLife.html
- Cancer Support Community. Breast cancer. Available at cancersupportcommunity.org/breast-cancer