“You have breast cancer” are words no woman ever wants to hear.
Apart from certain kinds of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, with 1 in 8 U.S. women experiencing the invasive form at some point in her lifetime.1 Fortunately, breast cancer is also one of the more treatable forms of cancer when it is caught early, with five-year survival rates of 90% or more.2
When the doctor gave you your breast cancer diagnosis, you felt unlucky. But your luck turned for the better when treatment was successful and you joined the community of breast cancer survivors.
You want to do better than survive, though. You want to thrive. As a breast cancer survivor, there are several ways you can ensure your health remains top-notch.
If you had been a smoker before your diagnosis, it’s almost certain your doctor ordered you to quit. Research has connected smoking with higher mortality in breast cancer patients who smoked before or after their diagnosis.3
If, however, you return to smoking after successful breast cancer treatment, you are greatly reducing your odds of survival. Data from a project that monitored breast cancer survivors show that continuing to smoke resulted in a 41% increase in the probability of recurrence, a 60% increase in breast cancer mortality, and double the risk of death from all causes.4
Weight gain throughout adulthood has been connected with a higher risk of developing breast cancer, particularly the estrogen and progesterone receptor-positive types. Gaining weight after being diagnosed with breast cancer can increase the risk of death compared with maintaining body weight. And post-menopause obesity can raise the risk of breast cancer incidence and recurrence.5
Thus, it’s important for breast cancer survivors to take healthy, sensible steps to lose weight, particularly if they are past menopause. Try to eat a healthy whole-food, plant-based diet that’s high in nutrients and low in calories. Also, add some sort of exercise to your routine, even if it’s just a brisk 30-minute walk five times a week.6
Breast cancer may be one of the most feared diseases among women, but it doesn’t come close to the death toll racked up by the number one killer of women: cardiovascular disease (CVD). Breast cancer survivors have to be especially aware of this because the use of certain cancer therapies can send their risk of death due to CVD soaring.6
Many of the chemotherapeutic agents used to treat breast cancer have the potential to cause chronic cardiovascular complications. These include congestive heart failure (CHF), high blood pressure, blood clots, reduced blood flow to the heart, arrhythmias, pericarditis, and acute coronary syndrome. Radiation therapy also has the potential to injure the heart and coronary arteries, which can raise the risk of heart attack and CHF.6
As a breast cancer survivor, it is vital that you have your primary care doctor monitor you for CVD symptoms and treat them as soon as they occur. For conditions like high blood pressure, a heart-healthy diet can help, as can a moderate exercise program.7
Bone health can become an issue after breast cancer treatment. Many therapies breast cancer patients take to relieve the symptoms of chemotherapy and radiation can cause bone loss and osteoporosis, and these changes can occur rapidly.6
In osteoporosis, the bone matrix begins to deteriorate, particularly in the vertebrae, ribs, and hips, and these areas become vulnerable to fractures. Strengthening bone integrity is a vital part of maintaining survival.
One way to combat bone loss is through a diet rich in calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D.6 If your diet isn’t providing enough of these nutrients, you can get them from supplements.
Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises have also been shown to build and strengthen bone density. Some examples of high-impact weight-bearing activities include dancing, hiking, running, stair climbing, and tennis. Activities to strengthen the muscles include lifting weights and using exercise bands. Yoga and Pilates can also improve muscle strength, but you should avoid certain positions if you have osteoporosis.8
The initial diagnosis of breast cancer is often very upsetting, and treatment can be arduous and taxing. It can be common to feel anxiety and depression during the treatment phase, when side effects can make it seem impossible to engage in even the simplest daily activities.9
While people may think that surviving breast cancer automatically brings an end to anxiety and depression, this is often not the case. According to research, 1 in 5 women experienced depressive symptoms for at least 2 years after breast cancer diagnosis. Side effects from treatment and uncertainty about the future can negatively affect mental health.9
It’s extremely important to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. They can refer you to a therapist that can help you overcome these symptoms and build emotional resilience. Cognitive therapy can be particularly helpful in treating depression in breast cancer patients, as well as achieving the biometric outcomes and weight loss goals associated with improved survival rates.6
In general, there is always a risk of recurrence after cancer treatment is completed.6 In the case of breast cancer, survivors with certain genetic predispositions need to be especially vigilant for any second primary malignancies.6
Survivors of breast cancer also need to be on the watch for lymphedema, abnormal swelling that can develop in the arm, hand, breast, or torso following breast cancer surgery or as a side effect of radiation therapy.6Lymphedema can appear in survivors months or even years after treatment ends.10
A widely used breast cancer therapy called tamoxifen can raise the risk of thromboembolic complications, including deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and stroke.6 Tamoxifen’s long-term use has also been connected with an increased risk of endometrial cancer.6,11
These risks are why it’s critical to get regular checkups with your primary care physician and gynecologist. This way, you and your doctors can catch any unusual symptoms early and treat them before they become a bigger issue.
With a good diet, the right amount of exercise, a good support system, and regular medical monitoring, your life after breast cancer can be every bit as vibrant and fulfilling as ever.