Life after cancer treatment
By Carrie Dunlea
Once the initial shock of a breast cancer diagnosis wears off, many patients are ready to get down to business and begin treatment. Based on data collected by the SEER database, which is maintained by the National Cancer Institute, five-year survival rates for breast cancer in the United States are excellent. If the cancer is localized or regional (spread to nearby structures or lymph nodes), the survival rate is 99 percent and 86 percent, respectively. If the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is 27 percent. These survival rates underscore the importance of early detection and treatment.
Treatment may induce feelings of anxiety among patients. Equally scary can be what to expect after treatment ends. Here’s a closer look at what comes next.
If treatment involves surgery for a lumpectomy or mastectomy, patients will move to into the recovery room after surgery to wake up from anesthesia. BreastCancer.org says if you are feeling any pain, now is the time to speak up, as staff in the recovery room assess your pain and vital signs.
Many surgeries are completed on an outpatient basis. However, more invasive surgeries that involve lymph node dissection require a hospital stay.
Doctors will set up a schedule of follow-up care to check surgical sites and monitor healing. Radiation or chemotherapy may be used in conjunction with surgery and may continue even after surgery.
Chemotherapy causes an “enormous assault” on the body, according to Marisa
Weiss, MD, founder of Breastcancer.org. Many of the hurdles that people feel post-treatment are lasting fatigue. WebMD says a phenomenon called “chemo brain” can occur. This is a mental change characterized by an inability to focus and memory deficits.
In addition, after chemo ends, it may take up to six months for hair to start to grow back, and hair that grows back may be a different color and have a different texture.
The American Cancer Society says side effects from radiation may vary depending on the patient. Extreme fatigue is often noted, and such feelings may come and go.
Some people experience skin changes in the radiation treatment area. The skin may appear red, irritated, swollen, or blistered. Over time, the skin may become dry, itchy or flaky. Depending on certain types of radiation treatment, radioprotective drugs may be offered to help protect certain normal tissues.
Doctors will prescribe a regimen for follow-up care. Every few months women may expect a visit at first. The longer you have been cancer-free, the fewer follow-up visits will be required. Mammograms on any remaining breast tissue will be scheduled between six and 12 months after surgery, and annually thereafter.
Bone density tests and blood and imaging tests also may be recommended if you are taking certain medications or have physical indicators that the cancer might have come back.
Getting back on track after breast cancer treatment can take time. Eventually, life can return to normal, especially for patients with a good support team in place.