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Life after treatment

For most people, the cancer experience doesn’t end on the last day of treatment. Life after cancer treatment can present its own challenges. You may have mixed feelings when treatment ends, and worry that every ache and pain means the cancer is coming back. Some people say that they feel pressure to return to “normal life”. It is important to allow yourself time to adjust to the physical and emotional changes, and establish a new daily routine at your own pace. Your family and friends may also need time to adjust.

Cancer Council 13 11 20 can help you connect with other people who have had cancer, and provide you with information about the emotional and practical aspects of living well after cancer. They may also refer you to a survivorship program or resources. These may help you adjust to your life after treatment.

Download our booklet ‘Living Well after Cancer’

 

After your treatment, you will have regular appointments with your cancer specialist and GP to monitor your health. This is known as shared care. Your doctors will see how you are going on hormone therapy (if this is part of your treatment), help manage any long-term side effects such as lymphoedema, peripheral neuropathy or heart issues, and check that the cancer hasn’t come back or spread. During these check-ups, you will usually have a physical examination.

Check-ups after breast cancer treatment are likely to happen every 3–6 months for two years. They will become less frequent after that if you have no further problems.

You are likely to have a mammogram and, if necessary, an ultrasound every year. You won’t need a mammogram if you’ve had a double mastectomy. If there is a concern the cancer may have come back, you may have a bone scan and a CT, PET or MRI scan. After five years with no recurrence, women aged between 50 and 74 can continue to have a mammogram through the national breast cancer screening program.

When a follow-up appointment or test is approaching, many people may feel anxious. Talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you are finding it hard to manage this anxiety. You can also listen to our podcasts on cancer tests and managing fear.

Between follow-up appointments, let your specialist know immediately of any symptoms or health problems. You can also see your GP if you have any questions and for ongoing support.

In most cases, early breast cancer will not come back (recur) after treatment. Although the risk is higher with locally advanced breast cancer, most people will not experience a recurrence.

Factors that may make the cancer more likely to come back in the treated breast or in other parts of the body include:

  • the cancer was large at the first diagnosis
  • the cancer was found in the lymph nodes
  • the cancer was hormone receptor negative
  • the grade of the cancer was high
  • the surgical margin was not clear
  • not having or not completing the adjuvant therapy (e.g. radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy) that was recommended after surgery.

Having one or more of these factors doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer will come back or spread.

Being “breast aware” can help detect cancer in the other breast. This means regularly looking at your breasts and feeling them to know what is normal for you. Being breast aware and having regular check-ups can also help find a recurrence early so it can be treated.

If you have had a bilateral mastectomy with or without a reconstruction, you should also regularly look at and feel your new shape and get to know your new normal. Report any changes to your specialist, breast care nurse or GP. 

If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, you may be experiencing depression. This is quite common among people who have had cancer.

Talk to your GP, as counselling or medication—even for a short time—may help. Some people are able to get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychologist. Ask your doctor if you are eligible. Cancer Council SA operates a free cancer counselling program. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.

For information about coping with depression and anxiety, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or visit beyondblue.org.au. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed July 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Bruce Mann, Professor of Surgery, The University of Melbourne, and Director, Breast Tumour Stream, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Marie Burke, Radiation Oncologist, and Medical Director GenesisCare Oncology, QLD; Dr Susan Fraser, Breast Physician, Cairns Hospital and Marlin Coast Surgery Cairns, QLD; Ruth Groom, Consumer; Julie McGirr, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; A/Prof Catriona McNeil, Medical Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Dr Roya Merie, Staff Specialist, Radiation Oncology, Liverpool Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Eva Nagy, Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Sydney Oncoplastic Surgery, NSW; Gay Refeld, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Breast Care, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Genny Springham, Consumer.