Breast cancer (female) - Living with 

Living with breast cancer 

Breast cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it's at and what treatment you're having.

How women cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person. There are several forms of support if you need it. Not all of them work for everybody, but one or more of them should help. You could:

  • talk to your friends and family; they can be a powerful support system
  • communicate with other people in the same situation
  • find out as much as possible about your condition
  • avoid doing too much or overexerting yourself
  • make time for yourself

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Recovery and follow-up  hide

Recovery

Most women with breast cancer have an operation as part of their treatment. Getting back to normal after surgery can take some time. It's important to take things slowly and give yourself time to recover.

During this time, avoid lifting things  for example, children or heavy shopping bags  and avoid heavy housework. You may also be advised not to drive.

Read more about recovering from an operation.

Some other treatments, particularly radiotherapy and chemotherapy, can make you very tired. You may need to take a break from some of your normal activities for a while. Don't be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends.

Follow-up

After your treatment has finished, you'll be invited for regular check-ups, usually every three months for the first year.

If you've had early breast cancer, your healthcare team will agree a care plan with you after your treatment has finished. This plan contains the details of your follow-up. You will receive a copy of the plan, which will also be sent to your GP.

During the check-up, your doctor will examine you and may carry out blood tests or X-rays to see how your cancer is responding to treatment. You should also be offered a mammogram every year for the first five years after your treatment.

Long-term complications

Although it's rare, your treatment for breast cancer may cause new problems, such as:

  • pain and stiffness in your arms and shoulders may occur after surgery, and the skin in these areas may be tight
  • lymphoedema (a build-up of excess lymph fluid which causes swelling) – this may occur if surgery or radiotherapy damages the lymphatic drainage system in the armpit

Talk to your healthcare team if you experience these or any other long-term effects of treatment.

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Your body and breasts after treatment  show

Dealing with changes to your body

A diagnosis of breast cancer may change how you think about your body. All women react differently to the bodily changes that happen as a result of breast cancer treatment. Some women react positively, but others find it more difficult to cope. It's important to give yourself time to come to terms with any changes to your body.

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Early menopause

Although most cases of breast cancer occur in women over 50 who gave experienced the menopause, some younger women have to cope with an early menopause brought on by cancer treatment.

Symptoms can include hot flushes, vaginal dryness and loss of sexual desire. Talk to your healthcare team about any symptoms you have and they'll be able to help.

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Prosthesis

A breast prosthesis is an artificial breast, which can be worn inside your bra to replace the breast that's been removed.

Soon after a mastectomy, you'll be given a lightweight foam breast to wear until the area affected by surgery or radiotherapy has healed. After it's healed, you'll be offered a silicone prosthesis. Prostheses come in many different shapes and sizes, and you should be able to find one that suits you.

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Reconstruction

If you didn't have immediate breast reconstruction (carried out at the time of a mastectomy), you can have reconstruction later. This is called a delayed reconstruction.

There are two main methods of breast reconstruction  reconstruction using your own tissue and reconstruction using an implant. The type that's most suitable for you will depend on many factors, including the treatment you've had, any ongoing treatment and the size of your breasts. Talk to your healthcare team about which reconstruction is suitable for you.

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Relationships and sex  show

Relationships with friends and family

It's not always easy to talk about cancer, either for you or your family and friends. You may sense that some people feel awkward around you or avoid you.

Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease. However, don't be afraid to tell them that you need some time to yourself, if that's what you need.

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Your sex life

Breast cancer and its treatment can affect your sex life. It's common for women to lose interest in sex after breast cancer treatment. Your treatment may leave you feeling very tired. You may feel shocked, confused or depressed about being diagnosed with cancer. You may be upset by the changes to your body or grieve the loss of your breasts or, in some cases, your fertility.

It's understandable that you may not feel like having sex while coping with all this. Try to share your feelings with your partner. If you have problems with sex that aren't getting better with time, you may want to speak to a counsellor or sex therapist.

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Money and financial support  show

If you have to reduce or stop work because of your cancer, you may find it difficult to cope financially.

If you have cancer or you're caring for someone with cancer, you may be entitled to financial support, for example:

  • if you have a job but can't work because of your illness, you're entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from your employer
  • if you don't have a job and can't work because of your illness, you may be entitled to Employment and Support Allowance
  • if you're caring for someone with cancer, you may be entitled to Carer’s Allowance
  • you may be eligible for other benefits if you have children living at home, or if you have a low household income

Find out what help is available to you as soon as possible. The social worker at your hospital will be able to give you the information you need.

Free prescriptions

People being treated for cancer are entitled to apply for an exemption certificate, giving them free prescriptions for all medication, including medicine for unrelated conditions.

The certificate is valid for five years, and you can apply for it through your GP or cancer specialist.

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Talk to other people show

Your GP or nurse may be able to answer any questions you have about your cancer or treatment. You may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or to someone at a specialist helpline. Your GP surgery will have information on these.

Some people find it helpful to talk to other people who have breast cancer, either at a local support group or in an internet chatroom.

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Page last reviewed: 19/08/2014

Next review due: 19/08/2016

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