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Staying Healthy Following Breast Cancer Treatment

Moving Through The Recovery Process Takes Time

By Betsy Lee-Frye

Updated December 01, 2008

(LifeWire) - Your treatment for breast cancer is finally over! So when will you start feeling like your old self again?

The truth is, you may never feel completely the same. You've been on a tremendous journey, one that tested you physically and emotionally. Everyone needs time to recover from the physical and mental strain. Here's what to expect after breast cancer treatment.

Post-Treatment Health Concerns

Regardless of your treatment protocol, it will take time for your body to recover. The amount of time varies by individual, and depends on everything from your genetics to your overall health.

Regardless of your treatment plan, most survivors say they experience fatigue after their treatment ends. Researchers aren't certain why they experience fatigue. If you are experiencing intense fatigue, talk to your doctor. There may be a medical reason, such as anemia or a thyroid disorder. If no medical reason is determined, make sure you're getting enough sleep. It can also be helpful to get moving. Studies have shown that exercise can improve symptoms of fatigue, as well as reduce your risk of recurrence.

Fatigue can be one of the most frustrating aspects of cancer recovery, especially if it lasts for months or years. If you are struggling with fatigue, seek out a support group. Other survivors might offer suggestions or at least help you cope. Don't be afraid to get the help of a counselor or therapist if the fatigue becomes a source of depression.

Along with fatigue, you may find yourself frustrated by weight you gained during treatment. As with any unwanted weight gain, it is important to take it slow. Start by eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise. If you don't see the results you'd like in six month, consider talking to a nutritionist.

Depending on your type of treatment, you may also experience early menopause. Talk to your doctor about this possibility and a recommended course of action.

Read on for more treatment-specific post-treatment concerns:

  • Chemotherapy. Certain kinds of chemotherapy can increase your risk of heart problems, such as hypertension or reduced heart functioning. Talk to your doctor about whether this potential complication applies to you. If it does, your health should be monitored. Patients should also be aware that some chemotherapy drugs increase the risk of leukemia. According to the American Cancer Society, leukemia because of chemotherapy is rare and usually occurs within 10 years of treatment. Talk to your doctor about this increased risk and how it applies to you. Research also shows that 40% of those who had chemotherapy have oral symptoms, such as sore gums, cavities, mouth infections and dry mouth. If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor or dentist. You may require more regular dental care to combat these issues. Sometimes, although it is not known how frequently, patients will experience tingling or shocking sensations in their hands and feet. These feelings, brought about by nerve changes, will likely begin during treatment and may take up to a year to resolve.
  • Radiation. Patients who undergo radiation can experience skin irritation at the radiation site. This irritation will fade away slowly and typically abate with 12 months. However, some patients experience a loss of sensation at the radiation site. Radiation can also exacerbate lymphedema (fluid buildup) which can be caused by surgery to treat breast cancer. Radiation to the chest area can also cause a condition called radiation pneumonitis. Radiation pneumonitis, which is uncommon according to the American Cancer Society, can cause a dry cough and trouble breathing. Talk to your doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms.
  • Surgery. Lymphedema is the most common health concern related to surgical procedures. The swelling can occur in the arm or armpit area and may begin days or even years after surgery for breast cancer. Report any swelling or tightness in your arm to your doctor immediately. If you had a mastectomy, you may also experience what doctors call "phantom pain," or pain that seems to be coming from your missing breast. This should resolve over time. Talk to your doctor if the pain becomes particularly bothersome. He may recommend a pain-relief medicine.
Follow-Up Care

Physicians vary greatly on their opinions regarding follow-up care. It's important, however, that you adhere to the schedule set by your physician. These visits provide the physician with a chance to inquire about your symptoms and give you an opportunity to ask questions. It's also a great time to talk to your doctor about resuming normal activities such as exercise. Remember, aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce your risk of recurrence.

Fearing Recurrence

It's normal to fear a recurrence of your cancer. In fact, according to the National Cancer Institute nearly 7 in 10 survivors worry about cancer returning.Your personal risk of recurrence will depend on a variety of factors, including your type of breast cancer, your treatment protocol and even your genetics. Here are some questions you can ask your oncologist about your risk of recurrence:

  • How often does this cancer reoccur in healthy women?
  • What are the symptoms of a recurrence?
  • When do I schedule an appointment regarding symptoms?
  • What are my risk factors regarding recurrence?
  • Are there lifestyle changes I can make or medical treatment plans we could discuss that might prevent recurrence?

Remember, your doctor can't promise that your cancer won't return, nor can he give you exact statistics regarding recurrence. If you find yourself continually worrying about you cancer coming back, find some support. You can either talk to a support group or find a counselor that specializes in cancer patients.

Be Gentle With Yourself

Many women who have completed their breast cancer treatment find they need or want to make changes in their lives. They need a new "normal," that reflects the new ways they feel. Take the time to listen to yourself: What emotions need addressing? What do you want to change? What new things do you want to try? Many women find themselves more emotional at this time than they were during treatment. Seek out people and activities to help you address your concerns, your feelings, and your desires. And try to relax: You are a cancer survivor.

Sources:

Barsevick, A.M., T. Newhall, and S. Brown. "Management of Cancer-Related Fatigue." Clincal Journal of Oncology Nursing. Oct. 2008. 21-5. 3 Nov. 2008.

Caan, B.J., M.L. Kwan, G. Hartzell, A. Castillo, M.L. Slattery, B. Sternfeld and E. Weltzien. "Pre-Diagnosis Body Mass Index, Post-Diagnosis Weight Change, and Prognosis Among Women With Early Stage Breast Cancer." Cancer Causes & Control. 28 Aug. 2008. 3 Nov. 2008.

"Chemotherapy." cancer.org. 4 Sept. 2008. American Cancer Society. 3 Nov. 2008 <>.

"Childhood Cancer: Late Effects of Cancer Treatment." cancer.org. 16 Feb. 2006. American Cancer Society. 3 Nov. 2008.

"Facing Forward: Life After Cancer Treatment." cancer.gov. 1 Sep. 2006. National Cancer Institute. 8 Oct. 2008.

"Living with Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence." cancer.org. 24 Jan. 2008. American Cancer Society. 8 Oct. 2008.

"Radiation Therapy." cancer.org. 4 Sept. 2008. American Cancer Society. 3 Nov. 2008.

"What Happens After Treatment for Breast Cancer?" cancer.org. 4 Sep. 2008. American Cancer Society. 8 Oct. 2008.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Betsy Lee-Frye is an independent journalist living in Kansas City, Mo. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Corpus Christi-Caller Times and Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications.

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