Practical Advice for Living With Early-Stage Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 15, 2023
4 min read

Early-stage breast cancer is breast cancer that hasn’t spread to other parts of your body. That means it’s just in your breasts or nearby lymph nodes. This includes stage 0 ductal carcinoma (cancer of your milk ducts) and stages I-IIIa. 

There are really good ways to fight early-stage breast cancer. And your chances of success are high. But you’ll likely get some unwanted side effects along the way. The good news is there are things you can do to ease treatment and recovery. Here are some tips to get you started. 

About 90% of all people diagnosed with breast cancer will live 5 years after treatment. That’s the length of time commonly used to measure survival rate. Your 5-year survival goes up to 99% if you have stage 1, or cancer that’s only in your breast and hasn’t spread.

That said, it’s hard to know how cancer will affect you specifically. The type of cancer you have, along with your age, overall health, and other factors play a role. Ask your doctor how these things might affect treatment success.

Cancer-fighting drugs, such as chemotherapy, can damage your hair follicles. That often causes some or all of your hair to fall out. Some treatment may cause thinning only on your scalp. But other drugs might affect your eyebrows, eyelashes, pubic hair, and arm or leg hair.

You don’t need to be embarrassed by hair loss. It happens to lots of people and usually grows back 3 to 5 months after treatment. But if you’re worried about it, here are some pretreatment tips that might help:

  • Cut your hair short.
  • Ask your doctor about a cooling cap, a tool that might stop or ease hair loss.
  • Wear a head scarf and add a cotton scarf pad for bulk.  
  • Shop for a wig before you start treatment.

Your health insurance might pay for some or all of the cost of your wig. But be sure to ask your doctor for a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis.”

Protect your scalp if you do start to lose hair. Treatment can make it really sensitive. You’ll want to:

  • Cover your head with a scarf or hat.
  • Use a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher if you do go out in the sun.
  • Use baby shampoo or mild shampoo and conditioner.
  • Use a comb instead of a brush.
  • Avoid hair dryers and curling or flat irons.

It’s really common for cancer treatment to make you feel sick. Side effects like dehydration and constipation can also turn your stomach. 

Ways to feel better include:

  • Ask your doctor about prescription anti-nausea drugs.
  • Drink lots of water unless your doctor says otherwise.
  • Try acupuncture or acupressure.
  • Eat small meals every few hours.
  • Opt for cold foods without a strong smell.
  • Snack on dry crackers or toast when you first wake up.
  • Eat a little something before and after chemo.

The stress of treatment can also trigger nausea. Relaxation methods might boost your sense of calm. Common ones include meditation, yoga, or deep breathing. You can also put a damp washcloth with or without peppermint oil on the back of your neck. Leave it there for 30 minutes.

Cancer treatment can make your skin dry, itchy, or red. Radiation therapy can also make you more sensitive to the sun. Ask your cancer care team what products to use. They’ll know which over-the-counter choices are mild and gentle. Here are some other things they might suggest:

  • Use a fragrance-free moisturizer and soap
  • Avoid tight clothes and underwire bras
  • Keep skin clean to prevent infection
  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher on your body and lips 

You might notice some nail changes. They could crack or turn yellow. Your cuticles may swell and hurt. To help, you can: 

  • Cut your nails short
  • Moisturize your nails and cuticles with petroleum jelly when skin is damp.
  • Use gloves when you do chores
  • Don’t get manicures or pedicures
  • Wear sandals or looser shoes

Talk to your doctor if at-home remedies aren’t enough. You might need medical care for some skin and nail problems.

Surgery, chemo drugs, and radiation therapy can all change the color of your skin. You might get areas that turn dark, red, or look bruised. This kind of discoloration usually goes away after treatment is over.

Skin changes are normal -- you don’t have to hide them. But you might feel more like yourself if you cover up the uneven spots. Check with your cancer care team before you use makeup like concealer or foundation, especially if you have a rash. Your doctor can give you some tips on which products are best to use during treatment.

Fashion might be the last thing on your mind. But cancer treatment can affect your body in lots of ways. These changes can be physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Here are some things that might help with side effects and boost your self-esteem. 

Focus on comfort. You might lose or gain weight throughout treatment. And your skin might get really sensitive. Pick clothes that’ll help you go with the flow, including:  

  • Pants or skirts with an elastic waist
  • Clothes made from cotton
  • Loose-fitting tops or dresses

Trade underwire for camisoles. These soft garments can give you support without pressing too hard on your skin.

Shop for breast cancer clothes. Many fashion brands create designs with treatment and recovery in mind. Do a quick search online to see what’s out there. Here are some examples of what you might find:

  • Tanks, camisoles, or robes to hold your surgical drain
  • Shirts or hoodies with easy access to a port-a-cath
  • Soft lounge wear without seams
  • Lingerie for post-breast surgery or reconstruction