Life after treatment for breast cancer
For most people, the cancer experience doesn’t end on the last day of treatment. Life after cancer treatment can present its own challenges. You may have mixed feelings when treatment ends, and worry that every ache and pain means the cancer is coming back.
Some people say that they feel pressure to return to “normal life”. It is important to allow yourself time to adjust to the physical and emotional changes, and establish a new daily routine at your own pace. Your family and friends may also need time to adjust.
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.
For more on this, see Living well after cancer.
Learn more about:
- Follow-up appointments
- Dealing with feelings of sadness
- Looking after yourself
- If breast cancer returns
After your treatment, you will have regular appointments with your cancer specialist and GP to monitor your health. This is known as shared care.
Your doctors will see how you are going on hormone therapy (if this is part of your treatment), help manage any long-term side effects such as lymphoedema, peripheral neuropathy or heart issues, and check that the cancer hasn’t come back or spread. During these check-ups, you will usually have a physical examination.
How often you have check-ups
Check-ups after breast cancer treatment are likely to happen every 3–6 months for two years. They will become less frequent after that if you have no further problems.
What happens at check-ups
You are likely to have a mammogram and, if necessary, an ultrasound every year. You won’t need a mammogram if you’ve had a double mastectomy. If there is a concern the cancer may have come back, you may have a bone scan and a CT, PET or MRI scan. After five years with no recurrence, women aged between 50 and 74 can continue to have a mammogram through the national breast cancer screening program.
Worrying about follow-up appointments
When a follow-up appointment or test is approaching, many people may feel anxious. Talk to your treatment team or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you are finding it hard to manage this anxiety. You can also listen to our podcasts on cancer tests and managing fear.
Between follow-up appointments
Let your specialist know immediately of any symptoms or health problems. You can also see your GP if you have any questions and for ongoing support.
Being “breast aware”
This can help detect cancer in the other breast. This means regularly looking at your breasts and feeling them to know what is normal for you. Being breast aware and having regular check-ups can also help find a recurrence early so it can be treated.
If you have had a bilateral mastectomy with or without a reconstruction, you should also regularly look at and feel your new shape and get to know your new normal. Report any changes to your specialist, breast care nurse or GP.
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 can get a Medicare rebate for sessions with a psychologist. Ask your doctor if you are eligible. Cancer Council may also run a counselling program in your area.
The Thing About Cancer podcast
Listen to our podcast The Thing About Cancer for information and insights that can help you navigate through the challenges of living with cancer.
Looking after yourself
Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain, so it’s important to look after your wellbeing. Cancer Council has free booklets and programs to help you during and after treatment.
Call 13 11 20 to find out more, or see Managing cancer side effects, Exercise after a cancer diagnosis, Complementary therapies, Emotions and cancer, Nutrition and cancer, Sexuality, intimacy and cancer, Fertility and cancer, and Living well after cancer.
|Alternative therapies are therapies used instead of conventional medical treatments. These are unlikely to be scientifically tested and may prevent successful treatment of the cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as a cancer treatment.|
If breast cancer returns
In most cases, early breast cancer will not come back (recur) after treatment. Although the risk is higher with locally advanced breast cancer, most people will not experience a recurrence.
Factors that may make the cancer more likely to come back in the treated breast or in other parts of the body include:
- the cancer was large at the first diagnosis
- the cancer was found in the lymph nodes
- the cancer was hormone receptor negative
- the grade of the cancer was high
- the surgical margin was not clear
- not having or not completing the adjuvant therapy (e.g. radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy) that was recommended after surgery.
Having one or more of these factors doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer will come back or spread.
Prof Bruce Mann, Professor of Surgery, The University of Melbourne, and Director, Breast Tumour Stream, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Marie Burke, Radiation Oncologist, and Medical Director GenesisCare Oncology, QLD; Dr Susan Fraser, Breast Physician, Cairns Hospital and Marlin Coast Surgery Cairns, QLD; Ruth Groom, Consumer; Julie McGirr, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; A/Prof Catriona McNeil, Medical Oncologist, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Dr Roya Merie, Staff Specialist, Radiation Oncology, Liverpool Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW; Dr Eva Nagy, Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Sydney Oncoplastic Surgery, NSW; Gay Refeld, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Breast Care, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Genny Springham, Consumer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.