You’re done with breast cancer treatment–yeah! Time to go home and live happily ever after.
Well, yes… and no. You’re relieved, of course, to be done with treatment. Mentally, it’s a load off your mind: no more everyday trips for radiation, no scheduling days off for chemo, no back-and-forth to the surgeon’s office. Emotionally, you may be fragile; you’re enormously grateful that you’re still alive, but also feel the specter of cancer lurking… will it come back? And physically, you’re feeling great. Or you’re a complete wreck. Or, like most of us, you’re somewhere in between those extremes. And you’re probably wondering what you’ll feel like 6 months from now. Or next year. Or in 10 years. “Happily ever after” is a moving target.
As cancer treatment–especially chemo and hormonal treatments–becomes more sophisticated, the range of nagging long-term side effects becomes more extensive. After all, prior to the development of tamoxifen, many more women had cancer recurrences. But no one had tamoxifen-induced uterine cancer. The chemo drug Taxol has no doubt prolonged many women’s lives – at the expense of possible nerve damage severe enough to affect balance. Thank God for the advances made in treatment; now, let’s make sure we’re ready with what comes afterwards. Here’s a rundown on things to watch out for, once your active treatment is over.
PAIN: You may experience permanent pain at the site of your mastectomy or reconstruction; surgeons do wonderful work, but sometimes there’s just no avoiding nerve or other tissue damage that can cause pain. You may also find yourself with sore feet or hands from chemo; or arthritis-like pain from aromatase inhibitors.
WHAT TO DO: Ask your oncologist what the current recommendation is for your particular pain. If it’s a drug, and you’ve had enough of drugs, you might try a complementary treatment: relaxation technique, hypnosis, or acupuncture have been shown to relieve pain in some women.
LYMPHEDEMA: If you had lymph node surgery, and your hand, arm, or chest area on the affected side feel tight (your clothes feel tight, your rings don’t fit), or you notice swelling, get checked for lymphedema. Don’t wait; it can be serious, and the sooner you get started with treatment, the better.
WHAT TO DO: Ask to see your hospital’s lymphedema specialist. If your hospital doesn’t have one, ask to be referred somewhere that does. You’ll need manual lymph drainage (actually, a very relaxing massage), usually on a regular basis for several weeks. You’ll also need to wear an elastic lymphedema sleeve temporarily; or perhaps permanently. To prevent worsening or recurrence, avoid cuts, burns, bug bites, blood tests, and overexertion in the affected arm.
SEXUAL PROBLEMS: Menopause, either natural or chemo-induced, brings with it a host of issues, from vaginal dryness to fatigue and loss of libido. Surgery can cause body image issues. The result? Unfortunately, your sex life may not be what it used to be.