See also our genetics and breast cancer, breast reconstruction and prosthesis, breast cancer trials and breast health pages.
Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain. You may find coping with body image and sexuality issues particularly difficult, and this may affect your emotions and relationships. It’s important to try to look after your wellbeing as much as possible.
Nutrition – Eating healthy food can help you cope with treatment and side effects. A dietitian can help you manage special dietary needs or eating problems, and choose the best foods for your situation. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a free copy of the Nutrition and Cancer booklet.
Staying active – Physical activity may help to reduce tiredness, improve circulation and elevate mood. The amount and type of exercise you do depends on what you are used to, how you feel, and your doctor’s advice. Cancer Council’s Exercise for People Living with Cancer booklet provides more details about the benefits of exercise, and outlines simple exercises that you may want to try. Many Cancer Councils also run exercise programs for people with cancer or who have finished cancer treatment. Call 13 11 20 for details.
Complementary therapies – These therapies are used with conventional medical treatments. You may have therapies such as massage, relaxation and acupuncture to increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. Let your doctor know about any therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some may not be safe or evidence-based. Alternative therapies are used instead of conventional medical treatments. These therapies, such as coffee enemas and magnet therapy, can be harmful.
For more information, call 13 11 20 for a free copy of the Understanding Complementary Therapies booklet.
Cancer care pathways
For an overview of what to expect during all stages of your cancer care, read or download the What To Expect guide for breast cancer (also available in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Tagalog and Vietnamese – see details on the site). The What To Expect guide is a short guide to what is recommended for the best cancer care across Australia, from diagnosis to treatment and beyond.
YWCA Encore (1800 305 150): This free eight-week information and exercise program is for women who have had breast cancer surgery. It uses floor and pool exercises to strengthen and tone the arms, shoulders and chest. The YWCA Encore program helps women regain their mobility and improve their general fitness.
My Journey Kit (1800 500 258): Breast Cancer Network Australia’s My Journey Kit contains information, resources and tips for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.
Look Good Feel Better (1800 650 960): Look Good Feel Better is a national community service program run by the Cancer Patients Foundation, dedicated to teaching cancer patients how to manage the appearance-related side-effects caused by cancer treatment. Women, men and teens participate in practical workshop demonstrations covering skin care, make-up and head wear, leaving them empowered and ready to face their cancer diagnosis with confidence. Workshops are held regularly in metropolitan and some regional areas. Call 1800 650 960 for information or visit www.lgfb.org.au/workshop to find available dates and register.
Relationships with others
Having cancer can affect your relationships with family, friends and colleagues. This may be because cancer is stressful, tiring and upsetting, or as a result of more positive changes to your values, priorities, or outlook on life.
Give yourself time to adjust to what’s happening, and do the same for others. People may deal with the cancer in different ways – for example, by being overly positive, playing down fears, or keeping a distance. It may be helpful to discuss your feelings with each other.
Life after treatment
For most people, the cancer experience doesn’t end when treatment ends. Life after cancer treatment can present its own challenges. You may have mixed feelings when treatment ends, and worry if every ache and pain means the cancer is coming back. Some people say that they feel pressure to return to ‘normal life’, but they don’t want life to return to how it was before cancer. Take some time to adjust to the physical and emotional changes, and re-establish a new daily routine at your own pace.
Cancer Council 13 11 20 can help you connect with other people who have had cancer, and provide you with information about the emotional and practical aspects of living well after cancer.
Dealing with feelings of sadness
If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, you may be experiencing depression. This is quite common among people who have had cancer.
Talk to your GP, as counselling or medication – even for a short time – may help. Some people are able to get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychologist. Ask your doctor if you are eligible.
The organisation beyondblue has information about coping with depression and anxiety. Call 1300 22 46 36 to order a fact sheet.
After your treatment, you will need regular check-ups with your GP or specialist to confirm that the cancer hasn’t come back, to see how you are managing on hormone therapy if this is part of your treatment, and to review your overall wellbeing. Your doctor will examine you and ask about any symptoms you may have had.
Most women will have a mammogram every year. Women who have had breast cancer cannot return to BreastScreen for five years after their diagnosis, so your doctor will organise diagnostic mammograms and ultrasounds.
If your doctor is concerned the cancer has come back, you may have a CT scan, chest x-ray or bone scan. If you have any health problems between follow-up appointments, let your doctor know immediately. You can also see your GP if you have any questions and for ongoing support. Check-ups will become less frequent over time if you have no further problems.
Usual timing for follow-up appointments
- 3–6 months: for 1–2 years after treatment
- 6–12 months: for 3–5 years after treatment
- 1 yearly: more than 5 years after treatment
What if the cancer returns?
For most people, early breast cancer will not come back after treatment. However, it is possible for the breast cancer to come back in the treated breast or in other parts of the body. This is called a recurrence. Factors that may make the cancer more likely to recur include:
- a larger cancer at the first diagnosis
- if the cancer was found in the lymph nodes
- if the cancer was hormone receptor negative
- if the grade of the cancer was high
- if the surgical margin was not clear.
Having one or more of these factors doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer will come back or spread.
It is important to be ‘breast aware’, which means you regularly look at your breasts and feel them to know what is normal for you. This can help detect cancer in the other breast. Being breast aware and having regular check-ups can also help find a recurrence early so it can be treated.
Expert content reviewers:
A/Prof Meagan Brennan, Breast Physician, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, NSW; Carole Andary, Cancer Council Nurse, Cancer Council SA; Tracey Bretag, Consumer; Terri-lee Cooper, McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Cancer Screening and Control Services, Tasmanian Health Service, TAS; Dr Richard de Boer, Medical Oncologist, Royal Melbourne and Epworth Hospitals, VIC; Miss Jane O’Brien, Specialist Breast and Oncoplastic Surgeon, Epworth Breast Service, VIC; Susan Schwabe, Breast Cancer Care: Clinical Nurse Consultant, W.P. Holman Clinic, Launceston General Hospital, TAS; Dr Anita Taylor, Deputy Director, The Wesley Breast Clinic, QLD.