After treatment

Following treatment, you will find your energy will gradually come back. You may need to have extra rest for a while. Increase your exercise and general activities as you feel able. Research has shown that regular exercise during and after treatment is beneficial. The majority of women find they can do most things within a few weeks of surgery.

After the completion of your treatment, you may need to have regular check-ups. Your doctor will decide how often you will need these check-ups as everyone is different. Check-ups will gradually become less frequent if you have no further problems. Generally, women have a yearly mammogram after breast cancer treatment.

Many people worry that any pain or illness is a sign that the cancer is coming back. This is usually not the case but if you are worried about whether the cancer is going to come back ask your doctor what to expect. You may feel less worried if you know exactly what to look for and what you do not have to worry about.

If the cancer returns, you will most likely be offered further treatment. It is important to report any new symptoms to your doctor without delay.

You might feel worried or depressed when your treatment is over and have time to realise what has happened to you. You may find it helpful to continue in or join a cancer support group to help your through the months ahead.

Arm care and lymphoedema

Following your surgery, it may take some time to regain the full use of your arm. Your physiotherapist or breast care nurse will give you instructions for exercises.

You may be concerned that your arm will swell after your lymph glands have been removed. This is much less common today because of the better methods of surgery and radiation treatment. However, a few women will still develop problems with arm swelling (called lymphoedema). To reduce the risk of this happening, you should try to avoid injury or infection to your arm or hand.

Some simple measure may help:

  • Regular exercise is helpful

  • Wear gardening gloves when gardening, an oven glove when handling hot dishes, and use a thimble for sewing.

  • If you're out in the sun, protect your arm from sunburn by wearing a long-sleeved shirt. Use a good sunscreen (SPF30+) on uncovered areas.

  • If you have a cut, clean it well and use an antiseptic dressing. See your doctor quickly if you think it is infected.

  • Get help with heavy jobs like moving furniture or carrying heavy luggage, and avoid using heavy backpacks for any length of time.

  • It is suggested that it may be beneficial to wear a support sleeve when flying.

  • If possible, use the unaffected arm to have your blood pressure, injections, or blood taken from that arm.

  • Be aware of swelling in the arms at any point in the future. Contact your doctor if this occurs.

Lymphoedema therapists and physiotherapists can also advise about massage techniques and the need to wear a support sleeve if swelling occurs.

Breast forms

If you have had a mastectomy it’s important to know about a breast form (prosthesis). A breast form can give a good cosmetic appearance as well as helping your balance and posture.

Many women choose to use a breast form although some women prefer not to. Breast forms are also available for women who have had lesser surgery (partial mastectomy). Immediately after surgery, temporary prostheses may be available from your local Cancer Society or breast care nurse.

Women with a breast form shop for bras.

About six weeks after the operation, you may choose to wear a permanent prosthesis. You are entitled to a benefit for a permanent breast form. Ask your surgeon or breast care nurse for a medical certificate of entitlement.

Reconstruction

After a mastectomy your breast can be reconstructed either immediately or at a later date. A surgeon’s decision about which method of reconstruction to recommend is based on many different factors. Reconstruction should be discussed fully with your specialist and you may be referred to a plastic (or reconstructive) surgeon. Many women do not wish to have a reconstruction. Speaking with a breast care nurse or with a woman who has had a reconstruction may be helpful. Information is available from your local Cancer Society or phone the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Possibility of recurrence

Sometimes, breast cancer can come back (known as a recurrence). This can be in the breast or in more distant parts of the body.

Most recurrences appear within five years after the initial treatment. Regular check-ups are necessary during this period. You should also regularly examine your remaining breast and mastectomy area and report any unusual breast symptoms or general symptoms to your doctor. You will need a yearly mammogram. The risk of a new breast cancer is increased once you’ve had breast cancer.

Treatment of recurrent breast cancer may be by surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, hormone treatment (see ‘Other treatments’), or trastuzumab (see ‘Other treatments’), or combinations of these. It aims to control the disease.

Successful treatment of recurrent breast cancer will allow many women to continue leading normal lives.

A specific book Secondary Breast Cancer/Matepukupuku Tuarua ā-Ū is available from your local Cancer Society, or by phoning the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

“I said to them, ‘Look, you just have to support me now. It’s my time.’ It was role reversal.” Silei