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Breast Cancer Recurrence: What You Should Know

When women quit breast cancer treatment early, they take a big risk.

Toughing Out the Side Effects continued...

These drugs affect each woman differently, Vogel explains. "Some patients feel fine with the drugs, but some have really, really obnoxious side effects," he tells WebMD. "Some are just miserable with arthritis symptoms from aromatase inhibitors. Some women taking tamoxifen have really bad hot flashes, sexual symptoms. They also worry about risk of uterine cancer and blood clots, which put them at risk for stroke."

If side effects are bothersome, discuss it with your doctor, Vogel says. "There are a few options to reduce side effects." It may be possible to switch to a different medication in the same class of drugs -- one that produces fewer side effects, he adds.

For relief from serious bone and joint problems, painkillers and drugs like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help control the pain.

It's not always side effects that prompt women to quit treatment, Vogel adds. For some women, it's a false sense of confidence. "When women don't have bad side effects, they're feeling fine, and start thinking, 'Do I really have to worry about breast cancer?'" he tells WebMD. "They don't see the need to continue treatments."

Even women with "good prognosis" cancers have a slight risk of recurrence, Vogel says. "Others may have a higher likelihood of recurrence, but even the best-prognosis patients have the risk. You will have a significantly less chance of recurrence if you don't stop the treatment. That's what gives us all hope -- and why we convince our patients to stay on their prescribed treatment."

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Your Chances

Taking your medication every day is an important step in reducing risk. If you have trouble remembering, set up reminders and a routine, doctors advise. Place sticky notes at strategic spots. Take your pills at the same time every day (like breakfast). Mark a calendar when you take your pills. Use pill boxes to organize your medications. Ask people to remind you to take them. Set an alarm on your cell phone or pager.

What else can you do to lessen your risk of recurrence? Exercise and eating right is known to reduce breast cancer risk in the first place. A handful of studies suggest that lifestyle also affects recurrence, Pegram says. "These are things women can do to empower themselves, take control, make an impact in reducing recurrence."

Exercise: Several studies of different types of cancer have suggested that high levels of physical activitycan help lower risk of cancer recurrence. One study showed that women who exercise after breast cancer treatment lived longer and had less recurrence. "The exercise was the equivalent of 30 minutes brisk walking four days a week," Pegram says. "It clearly cut their risk of recurrence by about one-half. It was really extraordinary."

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