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Breast Cancer Survivors: Life After the Treatments End

The breast cancer treatments are over. Now what? Here's how to return to your "new normal."
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WebMD Feature

Life after breast cancer means returning to some familiar things and also making some new choices.

The song says "It ain't over 'til it's over," but when you've had breast cancer, you discover that it's not even over when it's over.

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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 families.

"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.

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