Life after Breast Cancer

By Dr. Shoba Kankipati;

Many women look forward to the completion of their breast cancer treatment and getting on with their life. However for some the end of treatment can be a confusing or stressful time. They may feel nervous or upset at the thought of no longer regularly seeing members of their health care team and worry about what the future holds for them.

A common complaint of survivors is the apparent belief of those around them that, once the last treatment is over, the cancer is over. For example family and friends may expect a return to full family and work responsibilities and not appreciate the lingering effects of fatigue. This is why it is important that family and friends be educated about the realities of breast cancer survivorship.

As more women are surviving breast cancer, common complaints include fatigue and low energy past their chemotherapy and radiation. Muscle aches, stiffness, joint pain sometimes delayed side effects of chemotherapy or ongoing side effects of hormonal treatment can be interpreted as a fear of cancer recurrence.

The term Chemo Brain is one I hear often. Many women experience a general blunting of mental acuity, certain fuzziness with quantitative thinking, and trouble with memory. These changes usually improve over time, and reassuring woman of this is important.

Women may also be unhappy with their changed bodies and feel aged after treatment. Hair changes, weight gain, skin changes and scars from surgery can all be emotionally overwhelming. Early menopause and sexual changes are equally distressing. Hot flashes, mood swings, and decreased libido are important issues to address with your physician.

Between 5% to 33% of women who have had breast surgery may develop lymphedema months or years later. Physicians need to educate their patients about the ways to minimize complications of lymphedema, and encourage them to visit lymphedema clinics.

The key to ease the above issues of breast cancer survivorship is support and time. Survivors can also find comfort in speaking to their doctors. A consult with a psychologist is another option. I also deeply believe and encourage women to join a support group. The challenge of survivorship is the searing recognition of mortality that changes everything, but time does heal and knowing you are not alone makes it a little easier.

Dr. Kankipati is a board certified Medical Oncologist and Hematologist with Epic Care, www.epic-care.com.

HELPFUL RESOURCES

The Association of Oncology Social Work can make referrals to an experienced oncology social worker for psychological support services. 1-215-599-6093 www.aosw.org

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. 1-877-465-6636

www.komen.org

The American Cancer Society 1-800-227-2345

www.cancer.org

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