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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: What to do after treatment? Experts advice healthy lifestyle, regular checkups

You can ask the doctor for a survivorship care plan, which includes important information about your cancer and treatment
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

After breast cancer treatment, women may feel mixed emotions, from relief and excitement that the treatment is over to anxiety and worry about the cancer coming back. But if you have had cancer, you have a higher chance of getting cancer again than someone who has not had cancer, and that is why cancer survivors need to do things to stay healthy, such as getting regular checkups and making healthier life choices, say health experts.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the fear of cancer coming back (called cancer recurrence) is common among cancer survivors and can sometimes be quite intense. Experts, however, say that one does not have control over cancer recurrence and that it helps to accept this rather than fighting it.

“Unexpected issues might also cause concern. For instance, you might be stressed by financial concerns resulting from your treatment. You might also see your health care team less often after treatment and have more time on your hands. Any of these things might make you anxious. Some people are better prepared for life after cancer than others. But everyone can benefit from help and support from other people, whether friends and family, religious groups, support groups, professional counselors or others,” notes the ACS. 

For some women with advanced breast cancer, the cancer may never go away completely and they may continue to get treatments such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy to help keep the breast cancer under control and to help relieve symptoms from it. 

So what should you do after your treatments are over?

Even if you have completed breast cancer treatment, your doctor may tell you that you should get checkups or tests in the future. This is called follow-up care. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions. These tests can help find early signs of a new or same cancer. 

“During these visits, your doctors will ask if you are having any problems, and will probably examine you. Lab tests and imaging tests aren't typically needed after treatment for most early-stage breast cancers, but they might be done in some women to look for signs of cancer or treatment side effects,” explains the American Cancer Society (ACS). You can find more details on life after cancer treatment here.  

The doctor may tell you that you should get checkups or tests in the future even after you have completely your treatment (Getty Images)

Keeping copies of important medical records is critical. At some point after the cancer treatment, an individual may have to see a new doctor who does not know the person’s medical history. It is important that the new healthcare provider has all the details of the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. One of the best ways to help the provider get accurate information is to give them copies of all medical records.

Ask for a care plan

One can ask the doctor for a survivorship care plan, which includes important information about the cancer and treatment. If you have a survivorship care plan, doctors suggest bringing it along whenever the patient goes to the doctor. Find more details here and here

A follow-up care plan from the doctor or a healthcare provider should ideally answer how long will it take for the patient to get better and feel more like herself, which doctor(s) should the patient see for follow-up care and how often, the symptoms one should watch our for, tests needed after treatment is over and how often does one need them, and the long-term health issues one might expect as a result of the cancer treatment.

Other critical areas that the care plan should cover are what are the chances that cancer will return, what records does a cancer survivor needs to keep about the treatment, and what one can do to stay healthy, among others. 

Each patient has a different follow-up care schedule. How often people need to return for follow-up visits is based on the type of cancer they had, the treatment they received, and their overall health, including possible treatment-related problems. 

Staying healthy 

Beyond the initial recovery, there are ways to improve your long-term health so that you can enjoy the years ahead as a cancer survivor. There are several ways in which people can reduce their risk of getting cancer again or having cancer come back by making healthy choices such as being physically active, staying away from tobacco, not drinking or limiting the amount of alcohol intake, and maintaining a healthy weight and diet. 

Currently, there are no dietary or nutritional supplements that can lower the risk of breast cancer coming back. “Dietary supplements are not regulated like medicines in the United States – they do not have to be proven effective (or even safe) before being sold, although there are limits on what their makers are allowed to claim they can do. If you’re thinking about taking any type of nutritional supplement, talk to your health care team. They can help you decide which ones you can use safely while avoiding those that might be harmful,” recommends ACS. 

Currently, there are no dietary or nutritional supplements that can lower the risk of breast cancer coming back (Getty Images)

Mental health is equally important

Being told you have cancer can be scary and it is normal to feel worried, sad, afraid, or even angry. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some cancer treatments also can affect feelings, or make it hard for a person to concentrate or remember things. Getting emotional support, expressing one’s feelings of fear or uncertainty with a trusted friend or counselor, can be very helpful. Support groups can also be beneficial, and online support groups may be an option during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Cancer Survivors Network, an online support community supported by ACS is one example. 

“If you’re having problems, talk to your doctor. Your healthcare team may be able to help you, or they can refer you to mental health services. And reach out to family members, friends, a support group, or a psychologist for support,” say experts. 

Body image issues

Along with the emotional stress that cancer and its treatment can cause, many women with breast cancer also find themselves coping with changes in their appearance as a result of the treatment. Some changes may be short-term, such as hair loss. But even short-term changes can have a profound effect on how a woman feels about herself. Other changes are more permanent, like the loss of part or all of a breast (or breasts) after surgery. Some women choose to have reconstructive surgery to rebuild the breast mound. If you decide not to have breast reconstruction, you can decide whether to wear a breast form or prosthesis or not. 

Family members, caregivers and others

A cancer diagnosis can also affect family members and close friends. It is very important for people who live with or take care of people with cancer or cancer survivors to take steps to keep themselves healthy. As a caregiver, you need to take care of yourself as your actions will impact your loved one’s health and well-being. Find more details here.