I have been thinking a bit lately about the needs of breast cancer survivors both during and after treatment. The need for support does not end when the treatment stops. On the news last night was information on research done in the US about the long term impacts of chemotherapy on child cancer patients e.g. on the heart, lungs and bones.
While I know that breast cancer is not the most interesting thing about me, it really is the focus during treatment. Plus long term, the focus has to stay on regular general and specific check-ups and support to the body post treatments and surgery.
Long term side effects
In talking to a friend and fellow breast cancer survivor this week, we still have lymphedema and that just doesn’t disappear for some of us. Also the chemo nerve damage in the feet and hands. Often there is damage to the heart (luckily, my heart if fine). Bone thinning is another issue that needs attention e.g. DEXA scans each couple of years. I had some issues from taxomifen use resulting in uterine issues a few years later – so regular gynaecological checks are needed. In having a random blood test for thyroid function, my GP found that I was actually pre-diabetic…I think linked to the impacts of chemo on my pancreas and prolonged stress from treatments. But no one knows for sure.
So my recommendation is ensuring that you have a good GP and regualy general check ups but kind of leaning towards the impacts of treatments long term. Your specialists will know what to look for.
Over and above that is an ongoing need for support and conversation with people about breast cancer in a neutral and supportive way. I find that there are unique issues specific to this kind of illness e.g. fear of the annual check ups, feeling of protecting loved ones from information that is bad, fear of hospitals, ongoing side effects, fear about the future, fear of any ache or pain, lump or bump, fear and stigma about our new bodies, …and fear of statistics. There are lots of dimensions to breast cancer and surviving.
Connect with someone you trust whenever you feel the need to do so. Statistics also show that those of us in supportive groups or cancer type support activities have higher survival rates so talking about this stuff is not self indulgent. It is life saving.
My ongoing health plan recommendations
After cancer – have a wellness programme that suits you. Ensure you have your annual check ups, lose the extra weight gradually and safely and…value your health and yourself.
- Create a super health team around you of good health professionals you like and trust e.g. GP, gynaecologist, breast surgeon, counsellor etc
- Annual check ups with your breast physician (mammograms) and check ups for medical conditions that may have resulted from your breast cancer treatments e.g. bone health.
- Join some type of breast cancer or cancer support group (real or virtual). Emailing someone can be just as significant.
- Talk about issues that are troubling you to the appropriate people eg talk to the GP, counsellor, Oncologist…not just friends as they often don’t have the specialist resources to help you.
- Don’t be alone. There is lots of support out there if you are feeling unsupported. Start with your local Cancer Society and the internet for local support groups. Don’t go through this alone.
- Exercise and eat well. After treatment ends, it’s important to get as healthy as possible as soon as you can (your ideal weight is a cancer prevention strategy in itself).
- Share your story with others who have been through similar experiences. I learn so much from each woman I meet and there is something therapeutic about telling your story and sharing it with others. I am constantly inspired by our survivor spirits.
- Love your life. Have hope and a compelling future to look forward to. It is not enough to just survive…we have to have lives that we really enjoy and lots to look forward to. That is the stuff that keeps our cells happy, healthy and alive…us living our lives in a way that is meaningful and enjoyable for us. If you don’t love your life, it’s time to make some of the hard decisions to create a life that is great for YOU.