Breast cancer affects approximately 2 million women worldwide and causes about 600,000 deaths yearly. Early diagnosis is the best way to reduce the many lives lost to this cancer.
The life expectancy for breast cancer according to stage is as follows:
- Stage I 98% – 100%
- Stage II 90% – 99%
- Stage III 66% – 98%
The risk of recurrence of breast cancer is high owing to the fact that some cancer cells might remain in the body undetectable. These remaining cancer cells survive initial treatment and grow into new tumours. Therefore, after your treatment, you will need to have regular mammograms to detect possible recurrence in your breast.
A mammogram is simply a breast x-ray to determine whether a lump in the breast is a harmless cyst, a gland or a tumour. How many mammograms you have will depend on the type of breast cancer you had and the treatment you have already received as the chance of recurrence differs from one person to another.
The 3 types of recurrence are as follows:
- Local recurrence: This is when breast cancer comes back in the same place.;
- Regional recurrence: When breast cancer comes back in nearby tissues, such as the skin and chest muscles; and
- Distance recurrence: This refers to breast cancer that comes back in other parts of the body such as the liver, lungs or other areas. It is also known as secondary breast cancer.
Being breast aware is crucial for every woman even those who have survived breast cancer. Being breast aware is simply knowing your breasts; that is, realising what is normal and what is not usual for you by doing regular self-breast exams.
Some of the breast changes to look out for apart from the presence of a lump, include:
- Changes in skin such as redness and dimpling,
- Changes around the nipple such as flaky or rash,
- Constant pain in one area of the breast or armpit,
- Swelling in your armpit, and
- Swelling around the collarbone, among others.
Treatment for breast cancer recurrence will depend on where it comes back, the treatments you have already had as well as your current health and your preferences.
Managing Long-term and Late Side Effects
Side effects of breast cancer treatment can at times go on even after treatment has stopped. These are known as long-term side effects while those that develop months or years after treatment, are referred to as late effects. Side effects can be physical, emotional, or both, and can include:
- Lymphedema in the chest wall, arm or breast which can occur in women who have undergone lymph node removal or those whose lymph nodes were affected during treatment.
- Risk of heart problems for women who received trastuzumab or certain types of chemotherapy.
- Menopausal symptoms such as chemo-brain, fatigue and weight gain due to certain types of chemotherapy and use of trastuzumab for breast cancer treatment.
- Increased risk of uterine cancer for women who go through hormonal therapy using tamoxifen. They should have pelvic exams done annually, while those taking AI such as letrozole and anastrozole should have bone density tests periodically during their treatment.
- Chest pain, dry cough and breathlessness can be experienced 2 – 3 months after radiotherapy because radiotherapy can cause fibrosis which is a hardening or thickening of the lungs.
- Lowered sex drive.
- Vaginal dryness.
Keep your Personal Health Records
One other major step in being a breast cancer survivor is having a personalised follow-up care plan or a survivorship care plan. This is important because you may choose to continue seeing your oncologist or go back to dealing with your family doctor or another health care professional and it is crucial for them to understand your medical history including the treatment for breast cancer you have gone through.
This plan can include:
- A suggested schedule for your follow-up exam as well as other tests you might need in the future.
- A list of possible long-term and late side effects from the treatment; including what symptoms to watch out for and when you should contact your doctor.
- Recommended diet and physical activity.
The battle with breast cancer does not end after treatment. There is a need to continue having regular screening. For women who have a family history with breast cancer, your follow-up care may include genetic testing to determine whether the inherited faults in known breast cancer genes run in your family. If the gene fault is confirmed, you may have a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence and extra screening may be offered to you as part of your follow-up.
October being breast cancer awareness month, it is important to share information of what to expect after breast cancer treatment as this can help breast cancer survivors have a better understanding of how to adjust to life after treatment.
Share this article with your friends and family and if you know someone who is a breast cancer survivor, being supportive is the best thing you can do for them.
At International Medical Treatment Ltd (IMT) we are here to help you get quality and affordable medical treatment at our partner hospitals around the world.