Life after cancer is never the same and often times once treatment is over, many survivors are not sure where to turn. Here in Washington state, we have the highest incidence of Breast Cancer in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. While the good news is that survival rates have increased in recent years, often times survivors are living with many challenges after their cancer treatment is complete.
The song says “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”; but when you’ve had breast cancer, you discover that it’s not even over when it’s over.
After many months and oftentimes over a year of treatment, you can hardly wait to get back to a normal life again. But the day of your last radiation treatment or chemotherapy infusion doesn’t mark the end of your journey with breast cancer.
Instead, you’re about to embark on another leg of the trip. This one is all about adjusting to life as a breast cancer survivor. In many ways, it will be a lot like the life you had before, but in other ways, it will be very different. Call it your “new normal.”
From your relationships with friends, co-workers and your family and spouse to eating habits and exercise, breast cancer will change your life in ways that last well after treatment ends. How do you fight ongoing fatigue? What should you eat to help prevent a breast cancer recurrence? Will you ever have a regular sex life again? These are just a few of the questions that may nag at you as you make the transition from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor.
You finished your last dose of chemotherapy six months ago. Your hair has really started to grow back. Maybe it’s curly where it once was straight, or a lot grayer than before, but it’s hair. You have eyebrows again. So why are you still so tired? When are you going to feel like you again?
Your body has just been through an incredible assault, and it takes time to recover. You may not bounce back right away. Getting through multiple surgeries, several round of chemotherapy and them radiation is the focus for treatment. There was schedule and you had a job to do, a race to run. Once treatment is over, that is when most women begin to have time to really process what is going on. Two of the biggest hurdles women with breast cancer face post-treatment are fatigue resulting from chemotherapy and/or the accumulated effects of other treatments, and a phenomenon some have dubbed “chemobrain” — mental changes such as memory deficits and the inability to focus. If you tried, you probably couldn’t pick two more frustrating and troubling side effects for women handling busy lives, managing careers, and caring for families.
Many survivors expect to return to life as normal once treatment is complete and don’t know where to turn when they can’t. How long after breast cancer treatment ends can you expect fatigue, “chemobrain,” and other post-treatment side effects to persist? Everyone’s different and there is a huge amount of variation. Ongoing treatments, like hormonal therapies such as the aromatase inhibitors, or reconstructive surgery, can affect the recovery process.
A time to “Rethink Life Choices”
Just because treatment is over, doesn’t mean the effects of treatment are over. Managing expectations is huge. Talk to your family and co-workers and help them to understand that just because treatment is over, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to jump right back into running the carpool, coaching soccer, or possibly working full time.
Find ways to decrease the stress and the pressure on you in whatever ways you can. For example, you may have certain ideas about how your house should look, how much income you’re going to have, and what your commitments to your community need to be. Decide which of those things are really important to you and which ones don’t matter quite as much. Let the less-important ones slide or find someone else to do them.
With a cancer diagnosis comes a loss of control. After cancer, many survivors find that focusing on the things that they can control helps them to cope. At Survivorship Partners, we empower survivors to make lifestyle changes that will reduce the risk for their cancer returning. What foods are the best and which foods should I avoid after breast cancer? How do I change my old habits? How much exercise is enough? How can they manage the effects of their treatment such as fatigue, lymphedema, chemobrain or joint pain? Does my treatment put me at risk for any health issues?
If you are struggling with any issues after cancer or want to ensure that you are doing everything you can to lower your risk of another cancer and be as healthy as possible after cancer-come and partner with us!