Thanks to earlier detection, improved treatments, and supportive care of family and friends, there are now more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. In fact, we have begun to think of breast cancer survival as a chronic disease similar to diabetes or high blood pressure. Cancer survivors have a complex set of concerns including physical and emotional issues. The physical effects from the cancer or the treatment received can manifest as fatigue, appetite changes, chronic pain, radiation changes, osteoporosis, or chronic arm swelling. Most of the physical problems improve with time or can be treated to alleviate some or all of the symptoms.
Emotional issues typically tend to manifest as depression or anxiety. Depression can impact 20-40% of women with breast cancer either during or after their treatment. It is important to know these feelings will not always be there and they often improve with time and treatment.
One important way to deal with the anxiety from a cancer diagnosis and treatment is to find a support group. This can either be a structured group through organizations like the American Cancer Society or an informal network of family and friends. One survivor said with the strong support from family, friends and a faith in God, she was able to put breast cancer in her past. “Breast cancer no longer defines who she is, but it has made her much more aware of the joys of daily living and reaching out to others instead of looking at her own interests.”
Many ask, what’s next? Mammograms are important for cancer surveillance if a lumpectomy was done, or in the breast without cancer. The first mammogram should be done 6 months after radiation, and then yearly afterwards. If the cancer was treated with a mastectomy with or without reconstruction, yearly mammograms are not necessary. Initially, you should see your doctor 3-4 times per year the first few years. After 3 years, you graduate to every 6 month visits, and at 5 years, you only need yearly visits. This is because as more time passes from the original cancer, it is less likely to return.
I am privileged to have patients entrust me with their medical care and allow me to be an integral part of their healthcare journey from diagnosis to survivorship. I look forward to accompanying you through the journey of your cancer from diagnosis and treatment and into survivorship.