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Breast Cancer Health Center

Problems Linger After Breast Cancer Treatment

But Most Women Get Back to Normal Over Time
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Common Complaints continued...

Ganz and colleagues collected information on the health status and quality of life of 558 women immediately following breast cancer surgery. After the women completed their treatment, they were sent surveys to assess their physical and emotional well-being.

Responses were analyzed for the women as a group and by the type of treatment they received. Treatment times averaged two to four months for women who did not have chemotherapy and seven to eight months for those who did.

The investigators found that mood and emotional well-being were similar for all women regardless of treatment, with little evidence depression. Overall, 61% of women reported being unhappy with their appearance, 60% reported having hot flashes, 60% reported having aches and pains, 56% reported unusual forgetfulness, 56% reported breast sensitivity, 54% reported joint pains, and 51% reported muscle stiffness.

Sex a Big Issue

Sexual problems, including low libido, vaginal dryness, and pain during intercourse, were reported frequently among women who had chemotherapy. This finding did not surprise Dana-Farber Cancer Institute oncologist Harold Burstein, MD, who tells WebMD that chemotherapy often causes the hormonal changes associated with menopause.

Burstein says it is also not surprising that most women have immediate physical challenges after completing breast cancer treatment, but most recover completely with time.

"This study serves as a reminder that as women transition from the intensive phase of treatment to more long-term follow up, there may be lingering physical and functional issues that women need help dealing with," he says. "But the goal is not to make lifelong patients out of these women. The goal is to help them through treatment and have them return to their normal lives, and to a surprisingly large degree that is what women do."

Koenig says it took her almost two years to feel completely normal following breast cancer treatment. Now the director of communications for the national breast cancer support group Y-ME (www.y-me.org), she adds that patients need to recognize that their emotional and physical challenges may be very different at different stages of the process.

She tells the story of a very close friend who did not understand why she didn't immediately bounce back after completing treatment.

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