Practical Advice for Living With Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 13, 2021
7 min read

Life after a breast cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be a mystery. Lots of women have been in your shoes. Some of them have shared with us how to deal with the day-to-day challenges you may face on your road to recovery.

There are things you probably haven’t thought of yet. For instance, it can be tough to turn the steering wheel when backing out of parking spots after you’ve had surgery. So, you’ll want to look for a space where you can pull in and out without having to back up.

And then there are the other things.

Many women worry about this when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It may seem silly to others since the reason you’re losing your hair is to save your life, but it’s still a really difficult change to go through,” says Joan Grant, who has had breast cancer twice.

Not every woman will lose their hair. If you do, it will eventually grow back. To make the process less traumatic, cut your hair in a short style before you start chemotherapy.

There are several ways to deal with hair loss, including going au naturel or rocking a scarf or hat. Some people choose to wear a wig.

“Before I was diagnosed, I used to assume that people going through chemo must be really sick and were probably dying, and I didn’t want those sympathy stares,” Grant says.

If you opt for a wig, make an appointment at a wig shop before you start losing your hair so they can match the wig to the locks you have. Human-hair wigs cost more than synthetic wigs (from $800 to $3,000 or more, compared to $30 to $500). Still, Grant says they’re worth it. They’re more comfortable and look more natural. Grant does suggest you have a synthetic wig as a backup.

Unlike a human-hair wig, which needs to be styled, a synthetic one has “memory curl,” so it keeps its shape after you wash and dry it. Just know that heat -- like from a blow dryer or flat iron -- will damage a synthetic wig, something Grant learned the hard way when the heat from her oven fried the front of hers.

Insurance often covers at least some of the cost. But check first because how much they cover can vary greatly.

Cancer treatment can make you look sicker than you really are. Chemotherapy can dry out your skin and give it a gray, green, or yellowish look. Losing your eyebrows and eyelashes, which frame your face, “leaves a rather vacant stare looking back at you,” says Andrea Barnett Budin, a two-time breast cancer survivor.

You can -- and should -- take the time to mask these changes.

“Not only will it lift you up, but the reaction you get from others, and the glimpses of yourself you catch throughout the day, will make you gleam with pride,” Budin says.

There are things that will help you look -- and, in turn, feel -- your best while fighting cancer:

Moisturize more often. Or you can use a heavier moisturizer than you did before treatment.

Hide changes to your skin tone with foundation or a tinted moisturizer. A moisturizing formula is ideal if your skin is dry. It’ll also be easier to blend into delicate skin. Dot it on where you need to, and blend it with a sponge or clean fingertips. For fuller coverage, use a foundation brush.

Add eyebrows using a powder color or an eyebrow pencil in a shade that resembles your hair color. The eyebrow should begin on your brow bone right above the inside corner of your eye. It should peak directly above the outer edge of the iris (the colored part of your eye), and end at the outside corner (it should be slightly higher than the inner corner).

Make dots at all these spots using the pencil, then connect them with light, feathery strokes of color in an upward motion, tapering the shape as you come to the endpoint. More comfortable with a clearly defined guide? Try an eyebrow stencil.

Create the illusion of eyelashes (or add fullness to those you have left) by lining eyes as close as possible to the rim of your upper lashes. On special occasions, wear fake lashes. “One New Year’s Eve I had individual lashes put on by a professional and I felt gorgeous and girly,” Budin says.

The bra you’ll wear right after your surgery will depend on the procedure you had and what your doctor recommends. Generally, the goal is to create “the sports-bra effect,” says Wendy Goltz, an operating room nurse and breast cancer survivor.

“You want to hold everything in place to prevent jiggling, which will cut down on pain and reduce scarring.” Most medical-grade compression bras have front closures, which are easier to put on and take off.

Early on, your doctor may tell you to wear a bra 24/7 to minimize movement that could cause pain. If you have larger breasts, you may be more comfortable if you sleep on the side that hasn’t been operated on, with your healing breast supported by a pillow in front of you.

When your surgeon says you can go back to regular bras, ask what type you should wear. Under wires and lace may feel uncomfortable if they press on scars or rub your skin.

If you had a mastectomy, but you’re delaying reconstruction or choosing not to have it, talk with a bra specialist about your options. They can include a wide array of breast forms or prostheses that instantly fill the space where your breast was.

There are two main types -- a lightweight model and a heavier, more realistic silicone version. There are dozens of variations of each. Had a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy? There are bras that can make your breasts look more even, too.

If you’re having a mastectomy, stock up on oversize zip-front or button-down shirts. “You won’t be able to lift your arms for a while, so you can’t pull anything over your head,” Grant says.

The tops should be roomy enough to accommodate any drains that will be attached to you. To help manage those drains while showering or dressing, wear a lanyard around your neck. These cords, which have a hook on the end, are ideal for clipping drains to, says Mayde Lebensfeld, who had a double preventive mastectomy to lower her cancer risk.

When facing a long chemotherapy session (some can last hours), Budin recommends wearing a “comfy” outfit, including pants with an elastic waist and comfortable shoes.

The right nightwear can make a difference too. Slippery pajamas (and satin sheets) can let you ease your way in and out of bed when you’re sore right after surgery.

This technique helps too: Roll to the edge of the bed, swing your feet around to the floor, engage your abs, and then push off your elbows to get upright.

Pillows can be lifesavers while healing, since elevating your head, chest, arms, or legs can take pressure off painful areas. Budin suggests you have an array of them on hand -- hard, soft, big, and small -- and rearrange them as needed to find relief.

For Grant, a wedge pillow was a must. “You’ll be more comfortable if you’re propped up with good back support.”

You may feel better talking to others who’ve had breast cancer. Or you may not. Perhaps an online support group, where you can come and go as you please, is a better fit for you than an organized meeting. That’s what Budin found when she logged onto a support group for people with cancer who are also HER2 positive.

“I learned an enormous amount from my sisters,” she says. “But if things got too heavy, I could just not partake.”

Support can come in many forms. You should do what works for you. Just don’t be too proud to let someone pitch in with chores like cooking or grocery shopping. It will help you save your energy to get well.

Recovery from cancer surgery and treatment is a process. It can take a while to get comfortable with the new you.

“I remember being horrified by what I looked like after my first surgery,” Grant says. “But eventually, you get to a point where the scars fade and the swelling goes down, and you look OK again.”

Sometimes, self-acceptance is simply about mind over matter.

“I refuse to allow the sight of my naked body to depress me -- it’s part of who I am,” says Budin, 71, whose “foob” (a fake boob) helps her appear normal and shapely. “I have chosen to love what I have, and I continue to be and feel womanly and sexy-ish, even at my age.”

If you’re having trouble reaching a truce with your body, spend some time alone in front of the mirror and look for a few things about your clothed body that are the same or that you like. Then do the same while wearing lingerie. Then finally look at yourself nude and search out points about yourself that please you.

This exercise can help you overcome struggles with body image and the feelings of being sexually undesirable shared by many breast cancer patients, says Lucia Giuggio Carvalho, a nurse, breast cancer survivor, and author of The Everything Health Guide to Living with Breast Cancer. And that’s key for a healthy physical relationship.

“Accepting yourself as you are is really the first step in achieving intimacy with your loved one.”