After a marathon of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment that may last six
months to a year, you can hardly wait to get back to a normal life again. But
the day of your last radiation treatment or chemotherapy infusion doesn't mark
the end of your journey with breast cancer.
Instead, you're about to embark on another leg of the trip. This one is all
about adjusting to life as a breast cancer survivor. In many ways, it will be a
lot like the life you had before, but in other ways, it will be very different.
Call it your "new normal."
From your relationships with your family and your spouse to eating habits
and exercise, breast cancer will change your life in ways that last well after
treatment ends. How do you fight lingering fatigue? What should you eat to help
prevent a breast cancer recurrence? Will you ever have a regular sex life
again? These are just a few of the questions that may nag at you as you make
the transition from breast cancer treatment to breast cancer survival.
"Chemobrain" and Other After-Effects
You watched the last dose of chemotherapy drip from the IV into your veins
six months ago. Your hair has really started to grow back. Maybe it's curly
where it once was straight, or a lot grayer than before, but it's hair. You
have eyebrows again. So why are you still so tired? When are you going to feel
like you again?
"Your body has just been through an enormous assault, and recovery is a
huge thing. You're not going to just bounce back right away," says
oncologist Marisa Weiss, MD, founder of Breastcancer.org and the author of
Living Beyond Breast Cancer. "You've been hit while you're down so many
times: with surgery and anesthesia, perhaps with multiple cycles of
chemotherapy, perhaps with radiation."
Two of the biggest hurdles women with breast cancer face post-treatment are
fatigue resulting from chemotherapy and/or the accumulated effects of other
treatments, and a phenomenon some women have dubbed "chemobrain" --
mental changes such as memory deficits and the inability to focus. If you
tried, you probably couldn't pick two more frustrating and troubling side
effects for women handling busy lives, managing careers, and caring for
"You expect them to go away as soon as treatment ends, and they
don't," says Mary McCabe, RN, director of the Cancer Survivorship program
at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
That such a program as McCabe's exists is a testament to the changing nature
of what it means to have cancer. Women with breast cancer, like other people
with a cancer diagnosis, are now surviving for so much longer, and in such
large numbers, that some hospitals are opening entire departments devoted to
survivorship The National Cancer Institute has also launched a special research
area dedicated to studying what it means to survive cancer.