Thriving After Surviving: Life After Breast Cancer
You’re a fighter and a survivor. And now, you are entering a new stage in physical recovery and in your mental and emotional journey.
Even after you’ve beaten breast cancer, you may feel the fight isn’t over. Cancer survivors shift their energy from fighting to preventing, and from feeling powerless to being proactive with post-cancer dietary and lifestyle choices. But, months and even years after beating cancer, you may be facing treatment-induced cognitive issues such as memory loss. Others may be dealing with body image or sexual intimacy anxieties following mastectomies and hormonal changes related to their cancer treatment.
Guidance and support is available for survivors as they return to their normal lives at home and work.
“We emphasize treatment of the whole person. Following the active phase of treatment, our team emphasizes wellness and health maintenance issues,” says Dr. Catherine Welsh, an oncologist with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, who advises breast cancer survivors in all stages of their treatment, from diagnosis through follow-up care.
Biggest concerns for many survivors
Once you’ve completed your treatment and entered remission, your body regains its strength, but the worry about cancer coming back and how to return to your everyday life can be exhausting.
“It’s not unusual to find it challenging, frustrating, and saddening at times to try to return to your pre-cancer life and attitude,” says Dr. Welsh. “Seeking and accepting the support you need from loved ones, health care professionals, and the survivor community is an essential part of the healing process, which unfortunately doesn’t end the day you get the ‘all clear’ from your oncologist.”
Many patients find it helpful to join a survivor support group, speak with a counselor about their concerns, and engage in activities that reduce stress. Experts from Sylvester lead support groups locally and online. Live phone support is also available. There are active and supportive online communities of millions of survivors across the United States.
How to stay healthy
Survivors can work to stay healthy with dietary choices, strength-training exercise, supplements, sun protection, quitting smoking, and greatly reducing alcohol intake.
“At Sylvester, we place a heavy emphasis on maintaining a normal weight by following a healthy diet full of vegetables and getting regular exercise,” said Dr. Welsh. “These drug-free recommendations have been independently shown to significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. Whereas, weight gain during or following therapy has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence.”
Nutrition guidance, acupuncture, and exercise physiology services are available as part of Sylvester’s follow-up care for breast cancer survivors.
Health issues may be triggered by cancer treatment
Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and hormonal therapy, can trigger the onset of premature menopause in women, which can lead to hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and osteopenia or osteoporosis. “Because we can’t use estrogen replacement therapy with those who had hormone-sensitive breast cancer (about two-thirds of all patients), we discuss several non-hormonal treatments that may help alleviate these effects,” Dr. Welsh says.
“We advise patients to take vitamin D supplements and ensure the levels of vitamin D in the blood are normal, which maintains bone health. In addition, we regularly check a patient’s bone density and initiate treatment with agents that strengthen bone, if needed. We also place a strong emphasis on weight-bearing exercise to promote and maintain healthy bones.”
Issues with memory, language, and learning are also common during chemotherapy treatment and may persist long after completion of therapy. “This is more common in the elderly, and usually these side effects improve over time, as do many of the other side effects from chemotherapy,” says Dr. Welsh.
“We encourage cancer survivors to follow the measures shown to be helpful in maintaining cognitive function in patients without a cancer diagnosis: be physically active, remain engaged in work and perform active, problem-solving tasks,” she says.
The combination of physical and emotional changes a woman faces following breast cancer and its treatment may trigger anxieties about one’s body, intimacy with a partner, and sexual dysfunction. Medical treatment options are available to ease these symptoms and provide relief. Do not feel embarrassed to ask questions about sexual health after cancer treatment — it’s a part of your quality of life and your health.
For more on the services for cancer survivors, click HERE.
By Dana Kantrowitz, a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.