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Life After Breast Cancer: What to Expect When Treatment Ends

One day you’re in active treatment for breast cancer, and the next you’re not. You might feel an immediate sense of relief and gratitude that you’re still here and the worst may be over.

At the same time, side effects from treatment are still with you. Healing takes time. And because there’s a risk of recurrence, medical appointments still populate your calendar. You may have expected to feel “normal” at this point, but it’s not happening. Not physically and not emotionally.

Because the initial focus is on treatment, the aftereffects can come as quite a shock. You may worry about living up to your own expectations and the expectations of others. If you’re stuck in a foggy gray zone after completing treatment for breast cancer, you’re far from alone.

While everyone’s experiences are different, this article will cover some common challenges of life after breast cancer.

Lasting physical effects of treatment

Depending on factors such as the type of breast cancer and stage, your treatment may have involved:

one or more surgeries
radiation therapy
hormone or targeted therapies

Each of these comes with its own set of potential short- and long-term side effects.

Dr. Yuri Fesko is an oncologist and senior medical director of oncology and pharma services at Quest Diagnostics. He told Healthline that side effects can develop months or even years after treatment ends.

“What side effects patients experience can depend on the type of treatment they received,” he says.

According to Fesko, some common crossover effects after breast cancer treatment include:

changes in the look and feel of the breast after surgery
joint and muscle pain
loss of bone density
early menopause or menopausal symptoms
low sex drive
weight gain

“It is worth noting that each patient’s experience is unique, so even if two individuals share the same diagnosis and received the same treatment, how their bodies cope and the side effects they experience or are impacted by can be completely different,” says Fesko.

Survivorship planning

Fesko recommends developing a survivorship plan with your care team that includes:

information on your treatment, including specific diagnosis and tumor characteristics
treatment specifics
any ongoing monitoring (screening and diagnostics)
potential late side effects
follow-up care guidelines
support services
“Understanding the potential effects of treatment and knowing what to do about them can help ease anxiety,” explains Fesko.

Lasting emotional and mental effects

A 2018 reviewTrusted Source of 60 studies suggests that when compared with women who have never had cancer, breast cancer survivors have an increased risk of:

neurocognitive dysfunction
sexual dysfunction
“The combination of both physical and emotional effects can impact overall quality of life,” says Fesko. “There are support groups and other tools and resources available to help patients navigate and manage these side effects, too.”

Fear of recurrence

Anyone who has had breast cancer has some risk of recurrence. A person’s level of risk depends on factors such as the specific type of breast cancer, stage at diagnosis, and type of treatment.

After treatment, your doctor will set up a screening schedule and educate you on symptoms of recurrence. Depending on where the cancer recurs, these symptoms may include:

weight loss
bone pain
new lumps or swelling

It’s important to be aware, follow the screening schedule, and report new symptoms. But for some people, thoughts of recurrence can become overwhelming.

Dr. Anita Johnson is chief of surgery and leader of the Women’s Cancer Center at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Atlanta. Johnson told Healthline that fear of recurrence is nearly universal among cancer patients.

“It’s driven by a range of factors, including the predicted risk of recurrence, young age, and psychosocial adjustment following treatment completion,” she explains.

“At the mild end, patients may experience occasional thoughts about cancer. But in moderate to severe levels, they may suffer from the inability to control more frequent thoughts of recurrence, causing intrusive distress to daily life and feelings of hopelessness and despair,” says Johnson.

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