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Taking Care After Breast Cancer (online only)
November 2011
By James N. Martin, Jr, MD

There are more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors living in the US. Thanks to advances in the early detection and treatment of cancer, most women diagnosed with breast cancer in the US will live for many years. But once the cancer is gone, they often face a new set of physical, emotional, and financial challenges. Establishing a plan for follow-up care and maintaining open and ongoing communication with a doctor can help cancer survivors stay healthy and cancer-free.

Cancer survivors are at greater risk for cancer recurrence and developing new cancers due to the effects of treatment, unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, underlying genetics, or risk factors that contributed to their first occurrence of cancer. The majority of breast cancer recurrence happens in the first five years after cancer treatment ends.

After beating cancer with a marathon of tests and treatments, the last thing on most survivors’ minds is more medical care. But regular doctor’s visits can help improve quality of life after cancer and provide an opportunity to ask questions and get a doctor’s advice. Additionally, early detection of any new cancers increase the chance of survival and reassurance on the absence of cancer strengthens peace of mind.

Once you have completed cancer treatment, your follow-up plan of care should include a schedule of recommended follow-up visits, screenings, and medical tests and should specify which doctor in your medical team will be responsible for each. The frequency of follow-up visits should be adjusted according to your individual needs. The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends that examinations be performed every three to six months for the first three years, every six to 12 months for years four and five, and annually thereafter. Mammography should be performed on an annual basis after treatment for breast cancer ends.

If you have undergone breast-conserving surgery, a post-treatment mammogram should be obtained at least six months after completion of radiation therapy. Then, unless otherwise indicated, yearly mammograms should be performed.

In addition to continued care, you should consume a healthy diet, exercise, not smoke, and drink alcohol, moderately, if at all.

Discuss any concerns about health care costs with your doctor. Cancer can create heavy economic burdens on women and their families. Resources are available for women who need financial assistance to cover health care costs.

For more information, visit the National Cancer Institute’s “Coping with Cancer” webpage at cancer.gov/cancertopics/coping.


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