By Carrie Dunlea
The moment a person receives a breast cancer diagnosis, life changes immeasurably. The roller coaster of emotions begins, and suddenly a once “healthy” individual is thrust into a schedule of doctor’s appointments, treatments and inquiries from friends and family.
The World Cancer Research Fund International says breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women and men and is the most frequently diagnosed cancer among women in 140 of 184 countries worldwide. Despite that prevalence, the five-year relative survival rate for women diagnosed with localized breast cancer (cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes or outside the breast) is 98.5 percent, says the American Cancer Society. Survival odds increase as more is learned about breast cancer and more people take preventative measures, including routine screenings. Today, there are nearly three million breast cancer survivors living in the United States.
Lucas resident Caroline Morgan is a great example. She is a five-year breast cancer survivor of her second bout with the disease. Morgan’s first diagnosis of breast cancer was 11 years earlier when she was 50 years old.
“I would say my skin probably had not fully recovered from the first (radiation treatments), and then by having radiation a second time, it was too much,” she said.
Breast cancer treatments may last anywhere from six months to a year. Adjusting to life after treatment may not come so easily at first, but with time many survivors continue to live life to the fullest in the same way they did prior to their diagnosis.
One survivor, Sharon Richardson, said she came out of her cancer journey even more exuberant about living life to the fullest.
“It has made more aware of how quickly our lives can change in an instant,” she said. “So, I feel much more urgency not to put off any life goals.”
When treatment ends, patients often still have fears about the cancer, wondering if all of the cancerous cells have been destroyed and worrying about recurrence. But focusing on the present and all of the things you now can do with health on your side will help put your fears behind you.
Most cancer survivors must still visit their doctors after treatments end so they can be monitored closely. It’s important to go to all follow-up appointments and discuss any symptoms or feelings you may be having. Side effects may continue long after radiation or chemotherapy has ended.
Your doctor may have suggestions for coping with certain side effects or will be able to prescribe medications to offset these effects. Follow-up appointments should gradually decrease the longer you have been cancer-free.
“I continue to have a CT scan once a year and see my oncologist every six months,” Morgan said. “He wants to continue this indefinitely!”
Finding a new normal after cancer treatment may take time considering what your body has been through. Many women experience fatigue, brain fog, and sleep or normal rest doesn’t seem to make it abate. It is to be expected and how long it will last differs from person to person. While your hair may grow back quickly, it may take some time for you to feel like yourself again. Exercise routines or other lifestyle changes may help overcome fatigue or make it more manageable.
“It is not a death sentence,” writes one survivor. “Hang in there! What seems to be lasting forever right now will be over before you know it. If you have lost all your hair, know that it will very likely all be grown out and back to normal in less than 18 months.”
Getting a first-hand account of what can be expected the first year after treatment can help alleviate anxiety for breast cancer patients. Look for opportunities to engage with survivors in a support group and you’ll find you’re not alone in your struggles.