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Navigating the “New Normal” After Breast Cancer Treatment – Tips to Help Breast Cancer Survivors Enhance the Quality of Their Lives

Oncology/Hematology

Hooray! The moment that you’ve been awaiting has arrived. You have successfully completed treatment for breast cancer.  No more radiation or chemotherapy.  Time to return to “everyday normal.”  But, wait…

The “normal” you anticipate will likely not be the “normal” you experience.  It’s time to prepare yourself for a new reality as a cancer survivor.

Cancer experts agree that women who survive breast cancer deal with many issues – emotional, physical and stress-related. Their ability to cope, adapt and successfully move forward helps determine their future quality of life and even long-term survival.

Be Patient

My number-one advice: be patient.  The healing process is a journey – not a footrace.

Health professionals note that most breast-cancer survivors do not return to feeling like themselves again for 18 months or longer after the final treatment. You will likely be unable to dive right back into being the usual household guru, family caregiver, soccer mom or ambitious at-work professional.

General fatigue and a host of other physical issues, including pain; symptoms of early onset of menopause; cognitive fogginess related to the “chemo brain;” lymphedema, which causes swelling, especially in the arms and legs due to a buildup of lymph fluid; loss of appetite; and the side effects of ongoing medications and therapies to prevent cancer recurrence — all impact a woman’s ability to perform many routine activities.

A 2013 study in the Brazilian journal, Acta Paulista de Efermagem, indicated that women who have recently undergone breast cancer treatment often experience a sense of disability because they are unable to engage fully in daily activities like housekeeping, self-care and care of other family members.  These physical problems also can affect “basic activities” like sleeping, resting, enjoying leisure activities and social participation.

The Emotional and Psychosocial Issues

Coupled with physical factors are emotional and psychosocial issues involving a woman’s perception of body image due to loss of a breast or changes to breast structure, her self-esteem, sexuality and sexual function, including reduced libido.  Breast cancer survivors oftentimes experience anxiety – anxiousness about their future; depression — feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt; and fear, especially fear that the cancer may return.

Younger women treated for breast cancer also may express concerns about fertility.  Although pregnancy does not increase risk of cancer recurrence, most doctors suggest a woman wait approximately two years after the conclusion of treatment before attempting to conceive.

Breast-cancer patients with a greater sense of social well-being due to the strength of their networks — marriage, family, friends and cancer support organizations — report higher quality-of-life satisfaction, particularly during the first six months following treatment.  Research reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, suggests that higher social well-being is associated with decreased cancer recurrence and mortality.

Survival Tips

If you are a breast-cancer survivor, here are recommendations that can help you manage your “new normal.”

  • Know you are not alone, and that your diagnosis does not define who you are. The estimate of newly diagnosed breast cancer cases in 2017 is 252,710, according to latest government statistics. Female breast cancer represents 15 percent of all new breast cancer cases in the United States, but less than 7 percent of all cancer deaths.
  • Adhere to the regimen of scheduled tests and ongoing treatments prescribed by your physician. Should you experience lingering side effects due to recently concluded treatments or continued medications, let your doctor know.
  • Build plenty of rest periods into your daily living plan to battle post-treatment fatigue.
  • Exercise as much as possible, but talk to your doctor about what are safe forms of exercise, especially if you have undergone breast surgery.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • If you smoke, stop. Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Build your social network. Reach out to family and friends for support. Join breast-cancer support groups.
  • Accept that cancer surveillance will always be part of your life, but remember “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived” (Spanish proverb).