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  • Looking after yourself after treatment for breast cancer

    Contents

    Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain, so it’s important to look after your wellbeing. 

    Nutrition

    Healthy food can help you cope with treatment and side effects. A dietitian can explain how to manage any special dietary needs or eating problems, and choose the best foods for your situation.

    For more information about nutrition call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Nutrition and Cancer.

    Staying active

    Physical activity can reduce tiredness, improve circulation and lift mood. The right exercise for you depends on what you are used to, how you feel, and your doctor’s advice.

    For more information about exercise call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Exercise for people living with cancer.

    Complementary therapies

    Complementary therapies are designed to be used alongside conventional medical treatments. Therapies such as massage, relaxation and acupuncture can increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. Let your doctor know about any therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some may not be safe or evidence-based.

    For more information about complementary therapies call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Understanding Complementary Therapies.

    Work and money

    Cancer can change your financial situation, especially if you have extra medical expenses or need to stop working. Getting professional financial advice and talking to your employer can give you peace of mind. You can also check with a social worker or Cancer Council whether any financial assistance is available to you.

    For more information about work and money call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklets Cancer and Your Finances and Cancer, Work & You.

    Relationships

    Having cancer can affect your relationships with family, friends and colleagues in different ways. Cancer is stressful, tiring and upsetting, and this may strain relationships. It may also result in positive changes to your values, priorities or outlook on life. Give yourself time to adjust to what’s happening, and do the same for those around you. It may help to discuss your feelings with each other.

    For more information call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Emotions and Cancer.

    Sexuality

    Cancer can affect your sexuality in physical and emotional ways. The impact of these changes depends on many factors, such as treatment and side effects, your self-confidence, and if you have a partner. Although sexual intercourse may not always be possible, closeness and sharing can still be part of your relationship.

    For more information on sexuality call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can download our booklet Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.

    Contraception and fertility

    If you can have sex, you may need to use certain types of contraception to protect your partner or avoid pregnancy for a time. Your doctor will explain what precautions to take. They will also tell you if treatment will affect your fertility permanently or temporarily. If having children is important to you, discuss the options with your doctor before starting treatment.

    For more information on fertility call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or download our booklet Fertility and Cancer.

    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. 

    For more information you can download our booklet Living Well After Cancer.

    Dealing with feelings of sadness

    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 can get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychologist. Ask your doctor if you are eligible. 

    The organisation beyondblue has information about coping with depression and anxiety. Go to beyondblue or call 1300 224 636 to order a fact sheet. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.

    Follow up appointments

    After your treatment, you will have regular appointments with your cancer specialist to monitor your health, see how you are going on hormone therapy if this is part of your treatment, manage any long-term side effects, 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 the first year or two, and will become less frequent after that if you have no further problems.

    Most women will have a mammogram every year. It is best to arrange this through your cancer specialist, who can also organise ultrasounds and other scans if needed. If your specialist is concerned the cancer may have come back, you may have a CT scan, chest x-ray or bone scan. Otherwise, you won’t need any regular scans apart from the yearly mammogram and ultrasound tests.

    When a follow-up appointment or test is approaching, many people find that they think more about the cancer and 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 may also be interested in listening to our podcast on 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.

    What if the cancer returns?

    In the vast majority of 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.

    However, it is possible for breast cancer to come back in the treated breast or in other parts of the body after treatment for early or locally advanced breast cancer. This is why it is important to have regular check-ups.

    Factors that may make the cancer more likely to recur 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
    • young age.

    Having one or more of these factors doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer will come back or spread. It is important to be “breast aware”, which means you regularly look at your breasts and feel them to know what is normal for you. This can help detect cancer in the other breast. Being breast aware and having regular check-ups can also help find a recurrence early so it can be treated.

    This website page was last reviewed and updated October 2019

    Information last reviewed: Prof Christobel Saunders, Professor of Surgical Oncology and Head, Division of Surgery, The University of Western Australia, and Consultant Surgeon, Royal Perth, Fiona Stanley and St John of God Subiaco Hospitals, WA; Dr Marie-Frances Burke, Radiation Oncologist, Medical Director, Genesis CancerCare Queensland, QLD; Kylie Campbell, Breast Care Nurse and Clinical Lead, Murraylands, McGrath Foundation, SA; Carmen Heathcote, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Annmaree Mitchell, Consumer; Sarah Pratt, Nurse Coordinator, Breast Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Wendy Vincent, Breast Physician, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse and Royal Hospital for Women, Randwick, NSW, and Clinical Director BreastScreen NSW, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; A/Prof Nicholas Wilcken, Director of Medical Oncology, Westmead Hospital, and Co-ordinating Editor, Cochrane Breast Cancer Group, NSW.

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