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Living with - Breast cancer in women

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

How women cope with their diagnosis and treatment varies from person to person, but 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 may 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

Recovery

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

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

Find out 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. Do not be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends.

Follow-up

If you've had breast cancer, your healthcare team will agree on a care plan with you after your treatment has finished.

This plan contains the details of your follow-up. You'll receive a copy of the plan, which will also be sent to your GP.

You should be offered regular mammograms after your treatment finishes.

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 after surgery, and the skin in these areas may be tight
  • a build-up of excess lymph fluid that causes swelling (lymphoedema) – 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

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 physical 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 have experienced the menopause, some younger women have to cope with an early menopause caused by cancer treatment.

Symptoms can include:

Talk to your healthcare team about any symptoms you have.

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Prosthesis

An external breast prosthesis is an artificial breast, which can be worn inside your bra to replace the volume of 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 did not have immediate breast reconstruction at the time you had a mastectomy, you can have reconstruction later. This is called a delayed reconstruction.

There are 2 main methods of breast reconstruction:

  • reconstruction using your own tissue
  • 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

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, do not 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, 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 are not getting better with time, you may want to speak to a counsellor or sex therapist.

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Money and financial support

If you have to reduce or stop work because of breast 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:

  • if you have a job but cannot work because of your illness, you're entitled to Statutory Sick Pay from your employer
  • if you do not have a job and cannot 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 medicines, including medicine for other conditions.

The certificate is valid for 5 years, and you can apply for it through your GP surgery or cancer specialist.

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Talk to other people

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 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 on an internet chatroom.

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Page last reviewed: 28 October 2019
Next review due: 28 October 2022