4 things you can do to improve your quality of life after breast cancer

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Editor's note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Consider sharing this 
article to raise awareness of the needs of breast cancer survivors.

By Sharon Doering-Domanus

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosis in women and also can occur in men. Approximately 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime, but thanks to advances in early detection and treatment, survival rates are high.

“Breast cancer is frequently a very good-prognosis cancer,” says Daniela Stan, M.D., a Mayo Clinic internist at the Breast Diagnostic Clinic. If breast cancer is found early, there are more treatment options and a better chance for survival.

People who survive breast cancer may experience lasting side effects from treatment and the psychological stress of diagnosis. Learning how to ease treatment side effects and prioritizing wellness can improve your quality of life.

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, here are four things that may improve your quality of life after breast cancer:

1. Understand the short- and long-term side effects of your treatment

Breast cancer treatment can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and, if the cancer has an estrogen receptor, anti-estrogen therapy. Knowing the possible side effects of your specific treatment can help you plan.

“People should know the road map, what treatments they will have and the timeline,” says Dr. Stan. “After treatment, how long will they be incapacitated physically or psychologically?” Talk to your doctor about how long side effects typically last and what techniques or medications can relieve your symptoms.

Brain fog can linger for months after chemotherapy. For chemotherapy and radiation, “Fatigue is a big issue. A lot of people go through that,” says Dr. Stan.

Certain chemotherapies can cause damage to the nervous system, a condition called peripheral neuropathy. Approximately 30% to 40% of people experience peripheral neuropathy, and symptoms may include tingling, burning, weakness or numbness in the hands and feet. “For some people, neuropathy lessens over time, and for others, it is long-term,” says Dr. Stan. The important thing to know is that chemotherapy-induced neuropathy is treatable, so you can get relief.

Most breast cancers are estrogen-receptor positive, and anti-estrogen therapy is a common treatment. “Some people have no symptoms with anti-estrogen therapy while others have menopause symptoms, like hot flashes, vaginal dryness and joint aches.” There is no need to suffer silently through the side effects of breast cancer treatment. Talk to your health care professional about the likelihood of side effects and what you can do to relieve your symptoms. In many cases, medications, physical therapy, exercise and integrative medicine can ease your discomfort.

2. Rely on your friends, family and health care professionals for emotional support

People who survive breast cancer have unique needs depending on their cancer type and stage, but most breast cancer survivors share the need for emotional support. “Family and friends are very important. Try to spend time with people who care,” says Dr. Stan.

Breast cancer survivors may feel that since their treatment is over, they should move on. “But that’s a vulnerable time, and sometimes they feel abandoned,” says Dr. Stan. Survivors may still be dealing with long-term side effects from treatment or the stress of their diagnosis, and they need continuous support.

Talking with other breast cancer survivors can help. Ask your health care professional to connect you with a breast cancer group or mentor who can answer your questions about survivorship. Mayo Clinic Connect, a patient networking community, offers a Breast Cancer Group where you can connect online with people going through a similar situation.

Everyone’s emotional needs are different. Some people are private about sharing their cancer diagnosis and journey. “Family and friends should understand that not everybody wants to share and not everybody wants to become a champion of this cause,” says Dr. Stan.

Worry and sadness are common among patients. Talking to a psychologist may be helpful if you are having a difficult time coping. “Connecting to a psychologist through your primary care physician or in the community can be very important,” says Dr. Stan.

If depression and anxiety persist, a psychiatrist can help you consider medications that may help.

3. Know your risk of recurrent cancer and how to detect it

“The most common worry I hear is actually the fear of recurrence,” says Dr. Stan. “It’s very important to inform people of their risk and what they can do about it.”

While the risk of recurrence is typically low, early detection of recurrent cancer improves prognosis. “It’s important to let people know exactly what they should be looking for,” says Dr. Stan.

Estrogen-positive cancer tends to metastasize to the bones. Tell your doctor if you have had persistent bone pain for several weeks. Estrogen-negative cancer is much less common and tends to spread to the liver, lungs or brain. If you have had persistent pain in the upper right side of the abdomen, chest pain, cough or headache, it’s important to let your doctor know.

As for screening during survivorship, Mayo Clinic recommends a breast exam every six months for the first five years. In addition to a breast exam, you should have a mammogram yearly, unless your breasts were removed . If you had breast reconstruction with implants, you need a breast MRI every three or four years to screen for rupture, starting about 3 years from implant placement.

Breast cancer survivors may wonder if they should have more extensive screening like PET scans or bloodwork, but Dr. Stan explains that it is not beneficial. “These extra tests cause an increase in stress and biopsies, but offer no survival advantage,” says Dr. Stan. “It’s very important for our patients to be empowered and educated.”

4. Prioritize your health and well-being

A balanced lifestyle is fundamental to your quality of life after breast cancer. “So, exercise, sleep, and eat a very healthy diet, which doesn’t mean a ‘diet,’ it just means common sense,” says Dr. Stan. Try to avoid processed foods, red meat and alcohol.

 “The most important thing is regular exercise,” says Dr. Stan. “This is something I’m very passionate about.” Studies show regular exercise benefits the quality of life and reduces the risk of cancer recurrence.

Stress also correlates with the risk of recurrence. “I feel you really have to take an hour a day for yourself. Try to do something mindfulness-wise, maybe some yoga, maybe some walks in nature to try to decrease that stress,” Dr. Stan says. Reducing stress benefits your health and wellness, and may reduce your risk of recurrence.

“This is an opportunity to realize it is your time to get better and improve whatever you can in your lifestyle,” says Dr. Stan. “Do something different that you always wanted. Make yourself a priority. A very balanced lifestyle is important.”

Learn more

Watch Dr. Daniela Stan discuss what to expect after breast cancer in this “Mayo Clinic Q&A” podcast video.

Also, read these articles:

Join the Breast Cancer Group on Mayo Clinic Connect.