Professor Zoe Winters PhD (Oxon), FRCS (Edin), FCS (SA) SFHEA
Living with and managing breast cancer
Breast cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it is at and what treatment you are having.
How women cope with the diagnosis and with their treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support if you need it. Not all of them work for everybody, but one or more of them should help:
Talk to your friends and family. They can be a powerful support system. Remember, you are not alone.
Communicate with other people who are in the same situation. There are many blogs, local breast cancer support groups, patient support groups and hospital referrals.
Know as much as possible about your condition. Read books, the internet is a powerful tool. Do not blame yourself. Forgive yourself, if you don't return that phone call, or miss a date with a friend, they will understand.
Do not try to do too much or over exert yourself. Keep a positive attitude. Accept that there are events you cannot control.
Be assertive instead of aggressive. "Assert" your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, combative, or passive. Learn to relax. Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when you are physically fit. Eat well-balanced meals. Rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events. Do not rely on alcohol or drugs to reduce stress.
Make time for yourself. Believe in yourself. There are many self healing books out there that will help you love yourself again. Remember you are special, whatever surgery you have had.
Restore a healthy body image. Easier said then done, I hear you say. Losing a breast does not define who you are. Accepting and learning to love yourself are critical to moving on from surgery. There are many books, journals and blogs on how to make yourself feel whole again.
There are many websites that provide special clothes, underwear and costumes following mastectomies.
It is possible to return to normal after surgery. Mrs J said after a double mastectomy, "I am just looking forward to the future now" she also quoted, "I do not feel any different, although I am aware of it"
Recovery and follow-up
Most women with breast cancer have an operation as part of their treatment. Getting back to normal after surgery can take time. It is important to take things slowly and give yourself time to recover. During this time, avoid lifting things (for example, children or heavy shopping bags) and heavy housework. You may also be advised not to drive.
Some other treatments, particularly radiotherapy and chemotherapy, can make you very tired. You may need to take a break from some of your normal activities for a while. Do not be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends.
After your treatment has finished, you will be invited for regular check-ups, usually every three months for the first year.
If you have had early breast cancer, your healthcare team will agree a care plan with you after your treatment has finished. This plan contains the details of your follow-up. You will receive a copy of the plan, which will also be sent to your GP.
During the check-up, your doctor will examine you and may do blood tests or X-rays to see how your cancer is responding to treatment. You should also be offered a mammogram every year for the first five years after your treatment.
Although it is rare, your treatment for breast cancer may cause new problems:
Pain and stiffness in your arms and shoulder may occur after surgery and the skin in these areas may be tight.
Lymphoedema is a build-up of excess lymph fluid which causes swelling. This may happen if surgery or radiotherapy causes damage to the lymphatic drainage system in the armpit.
Talk to your healthcare team if you experience these or any other long-term effects of treatment. Think of pain management as an important part of any breast cancer treatment, and be sure to address it with your consultant/GP as part of your overall breast cancer recovery plan.
There are many support arms out there for you. Psychologists, Physiotherapists, Lymphodema nurses, massage therapists, patient support groups and reputable websites. Please don't do this alone.
For support see Breast Cancer Care