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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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"Chemobrain" and Other After-Effects continued...

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.

 

How long after breast cancer treatment ends can you expect fatigue, "chemobrain," and other post-treatment side effects to persist? Everyone's different, of course, but as a general rule of thumb, Weiss tells her patients to expect a recovery period about the same time from your first "cancer scare" moment to the date of your last treatment. So if you found a lump or had a suspicious mammogram in April, and had your last radiation treatment in December, it may be August or September of the following year before you reach your "new normal."

"Even then, that doesn't mean that you're fully back to yourself again, but by then you should have a sense of where you're going to be, what your energy level will be, and so on," says Weiss. Ongoing treatments, like tamoxifen or other hormonal therapies such as arimidex, aromasin or femara, or reconstructive surgery, can affect the process.

"I have a lot of patients who are in their second year of dealing with this. Yes, their main anti-cancer treatment may be over, but they're still figuring out how to manage the side effects of hormonal therapies and so on. It can feel like an endless process."

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