A Husband's Guide to Understanding Breast Cancer Prognosis

Editor's Note: This article was originally written by patient expert Tom Brown.

Before trying to make sense of breast cancer prognosis, it's important to know the type of breast cancer you're dealing with. Then, visit the appropriate pages below to learn more about the specific type of breast cancer.

Types of Breast Cancer: FAQ guides written by a breast cancer survivor and reviewed by breast cancer doctors.

Breast Cancer Treatment Options

With many different types of breast cancer come a variety of treatment options. The most common treatments include chemotherapy, radiation and surgery - or a combination of any of them. Your oncologist will determine the type, duration and amount of treatment. He or she will consider several factors such as general physical condition, type of breast cancer, historical factors in treating the specific type of cancer, and possibly clinical trial drugs.

For more information on breast cancer treatment options, see: Breast Cancer Treatment

Understanding Breast Cancer Prognosis: Our Story

After Barb's biopsy came back positive for inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), the next step was to see an oncologist. Our doctor conducted a thorough physical exam and explained the course of action he felt would be best for Barb. We asked about the chances of recovery and the possibility of recurrence.

Because Barb had IBC, we were told that the chances of recurrence after treatment were about 60 percent. However, if she made it past five years, her chances of long-term survival increased to about 80 percent. This was not pleasant news, but at least our doctor was honest with us and provided some hope for a cure.

Our doctor went on to explain that he wanted Barb to start with a bone scan and a CAT scan to establish a baseline of her physical condition. He also wanted her to start chemotherapy immediately. Our doctor felt that the tumor was too large for mastectomy to be successful, and that the chances of it spreading to other parts of Barb's body were high.

The treatment schedule he prescribed was four months of chemotherapy to shrink and contain the mass in her breast, followed by a modified radical mastectomy. After the operation, Barb would receive additional chemotherapy (adjunct treatment) to attempt to kill any remaining cancer cells that might be lingering in her system.

After this initial discussion with our doctor, he left the exam room, and Barb got dressed. I could tell she was very upset, but she was hanging in there just the same. I tried to console her and reassure her that our commitment together to fight the cancer with all our strength would get us through this very difficult period. She acknowledged my support.

We then met with our doctor's nurse who briefed us on what to expect from the chemotherapy. The nurse was gentle but frank with both of us. She gave us several brochures and pamphlets describing the effects of chemotherapy.

The nurse also explained the treatment schedule our doctor had prescribed. Barb would begin by receiving chemotherapy by injection. Eight days later, she would receive a second injection In addition, Barb would take oral chemotherapy for fourteen days followed by a week to recover and allow her white blood cells time to rebuild. Then, she would start the cycle over again. The nurse instructed Barb to get weekly blood draws so her red and white blood cell counts could be monitored. Barb was very upset and couldn't stop crying. Both the nurse and I tried to console her, but she just responded that she would be all right, and that she was just a very emotional person.

We now had Barb's prognosis directly from an expert oncologist who's treated many patients. In short, there was a 60 percent chance of recurrence after treatment. This fact did not sound good to us, but it did nothing to change the way we faced our battle with breast cancer.

Unfortunately, our story does not have a happy ending. Barbara died in August of 1994, just over a year after her diagnosis.

Dealing with Breast Cancer Prognosis

A few thoughts on dealing with breast cancer prognosis:

  • First and most importantly, keep in mind that a prognosis is simply a forecast or prediction of the probable course of a disease and the chances of recovery. A prognosis is merely a guide based on your doctor's past experience and medical history, and every woman treated for breast cancer is unique. Each day there are new advances in treatment and technology to help fight breast cancer.

  • When meeting with your doctor for the first time, have a list of questions to ask. Take a tape recorder or a note pad to jot down what is said. It will be an emotional visit, so don't try to rely on memory. It's common to become overwhelmed and forget vital information.

  • Take home pamphlets and brochures from your doctor's office. They contain useful information that you'll want and need to refer to later on.

For patient-friendly guides to the most common chemo regimens, see: Chemotherapy Treatment Regimens

  • Research breast cancer and breast cancer treatment options. Learn all you can about what you're dealing with.

  • Taking on the role of a caregiver is not an easy task. Keep in mind that your loved one has a serious disease that could take her life. Be gentle in your actions. Remember to take care of yourself, too, both physically and emotionally.