Breast cancer (female) - Living with 

Living with breast cancer 

Breast cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it is at and what treatment you are 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:

  • Talk to your friends and family. They can be a powerful support system
  • Communicate with other people in the same situation
  • Know as much as possible about your condition
  • Do not try to do too much or overexert 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 time. It is 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 heavy housework. You may also be advised not to drive.

Read more information 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. Do not be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends.

Follow-up

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

If you have 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 do 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 is rare, your treatment for breast cancer may cause new problems:

  • Pain and stiffness in your arms and shoulder may occur after surgery and the skin in these areas may be tight
  • Lymphoedema is a build-up of excess lymph fluid which causes swelling. This may happen if surgery or radiotherapy causes damage to 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 your 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 changes to their body due to breast cancer treatment. Some women react positively but others find it more difficult to cope. It is important to give yourself time to come to terms with any changes to your body.

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Early menopause

Although most breast cancer occurs in women over 50 who have been through the menopause, some younger women have to cope with early menopause brought on by treatment for cancer. Symptoms can include hot flushes, vaginal dryness and loss of sexual desire. Talk to your healthcare team about any symptoms you have and they will 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 has been removed. Soon after a mastectomy, you will be given a lightweight foam breast to wear until the area affected by surgery or radiotherapy has healed. After it has healed, you will be offered a silicone prosthesis. Prostheses come in many different sizes and shapes and you should be able to find one that suits you.

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Reconstruction

If you did not have immediate breast reconstruction (carried out at the time of mastectomy), you can have reconstruction later, called a delayed reconstruction. There are two main methods of breast reconstruction. These are reconstruction using your own tissue and reconstruction using an implant. Which type is more suitable for you depends on many factors, including the treatment you have 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 is 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. But do not feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself, if that is what you need.

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Your sex life

Breast cancer and its treatment can affect your sex life. It is common for women to lose interest in sex after treatment for breast cancer. 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 grieving the loss of your breasts or, in some cases, your fertility.

It is 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 hard to cope financially. If you have cancer or you are caring for someone with cancer, you may be entitled to financial support:

  • If you have a job but cannot work because of your illness, you are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from your employer
  • If you don't have a job and cannot work because of your illness, you may be entitled to Employment and Support Allowance
  • If you are 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 early what help is available to you. Speak to the social worker at your hospital, who can 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

If you have questions, your GP or nurse may be able to reassure you. 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: 09/07/2012

Next review due: 09/07/2014

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