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Caring for yourself after breast cancer

A smiling woman sitting on the floor in a living room with headphones on.

Learn how to navigate some of the common concerns people face after breast cancer treatment.

Finally, the day you thought might never come has arrived. Your treatment for breast cancer is behind you. You're in recovery mode. That's good!

But it may take a while for things to get back to normal. Fatigue, worry, stress and treatment side effects don't necessarily disappear overnight. And new concerns may be added.

The good news? There are resources to help you get through this time.

5 common concerns

1. Fear that cancer will return. It's normal to worry that your cancer will return. And it could. But there are ways to handle your fears.

Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have and what you can do.

Some people, for example, might find that engaging in activities they enjoy helps them avoid focusing on fear. Others gain confidence by setting goals, such as celebrating a wedding anniversary, a birth or a college graduation.

You also can choose to focus on staying well, which may help you feel more in control of your future. For example:

  • Ask your doctor about healthy life choices that might lower your risk for breast cancer. Following a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; engaging in regular physical activity; and maintaining a healthy weight are all important, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
  • Be sure to go to all of your follow-up appointments. Your doctor will want to monitor you closely for any signs of cancer recurrence.

2. Tamoxifen troubles. Tamoxifen is often taken for 10 years after cancer treatment ends to help prevent cancer recurrence. Side effects can include tiredness, hot flashes and vaginal discharge. However, these undesirable reactions are generally treatable. Tamoxifen may also cause severe side effects like cancer of the uterus, blood clots in the lungs and stroke. But those are rare.

Newer medicines—called aromatase inhibitors (AIs)—may be another option. These are usually given to women who are past menopause and whose cancers are hormone-receptor positive. AIs are usually taken daily for up to five years, according to the ACS. AIs can cause menopause symptoms and increase bone thinning, which can cause osteoporosis. If you are taking an AI, your doctor may want to check your bone density.

3. Lingering side effects. Some side effects of treatment may linger. Most can be treated; others may resolve on their own. For example:

  • Fatigue after the end of treatment usually eases with time and rest. Exercise, with your doctor's permission, can also help.
  • Radiation therapy can cause painful skin changes similar to a sunburn, but it won't last forever. Ask your doctor about creams and lotions that may help your skin feel better.
  • You could experience menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes. Talk to your doctor about managing the symptoms.
  • Lymphedema can cause arm or hand swelling on the side of lymph node surgery or radiation. Lymphedema may develop at any time, and it can recur months or years after cancer treatment. It's usually treated by a physical or occupational therapist, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Treatment options for lymphedema include special massages, special bandaging, exercises and fitting for a compression sleeve.

4. Body image/sexuality issues. Losing hair and one or both breasts can be traumatic for some people; others take it in stride. But hair will grow back, and breast reconstruction is possible if you're interested, even if it isn't done immediately after surgery. Or, instead of having breast reconstruction, some people choose to wear a custom breast prosthesis.

Wigs, hats and scarves are some of the potential options for dealing with hair loss in the meantime.

Changes in physical appearance may raise concerns about your partner's reaction and how the changes will affect your sexuality. Find a time to talk openly about your needs and your partner's feelings.

You should feel comfortable talking with your healthcare team about body image and sexuality too. And you shouldn't hesitate to seek professional counseling if necessary.

5. Depression and anxiety. When you aren't feeling well physically and emotionally, depression and anxiety may follow. Just like the cancer itself, these feelings need to be treated. To find out if you might be experiencing depression, take this short risk assessment.

Find support

Your hospital can be an excellent source for support services you may need, including nursing, social services, nutrition information, rehabilitation facilities and spiritual services.

Some people turn to individual or group counseling or self-help groups for support. Others may rely primarily on family and friends.

Free online support programs on the ACS website include the volunteer program and the Cancer Survivors Network, an online community created by and for cancer survivors and their caregivers to share stories, support and practical tips for living with cancer and its effects.

Reviewed 1/8/2021

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