At the beginning of 2022, there were more than four million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. Breast cancer is an incredibly common illness, affecting approximately one in eight women (12.5%). Fortunately, great strides have been made in early detection and treatment. As a result, more than nine in 10 patients are surviving more than five years after breast cancer diagnosis. While this is positive news, the breast cancer survivorship journey is always a difficult one. In this article, we’ll examine some of the challenges survivors face through treatment and beyond.
When are cancer patients considered “survivors”?
Anyone living who has had a cancer diagnosis can be considered a survivor, regardless of their prognosis or where they are in the treatment process. However, some people in this category prefer calling themselves “people with cancer” or “people who have had cancer” rather than survivors. For the purpose of this article, survivorship means the entire process of living through a cancer diagnosis.
The various phases of cancer survivorship can present serious mental and emotional challenges. They can also stimulate intense personal growth and development. Learning about the experiences of others who have traveled this road can sometimes provide helpful perspective on the journey. Seeing ourselves in the stories of others can often help us visualize moving through difficulties—and perhaps emerging stronger—rather than being overcome by them.
What is the survivorship journey?
The journey through breast cancer diagnosis, treatment, and beyond looks different for each individual patient. However, there are many commonalities. The journey map begins with diagnosis and moves through treatment, follow-up care and transition to (perhaps a new) normal life. Sometimes, it also includes cancer recurrence and metastases. Wherever an individual’s journey leads, the unwavering support of family and friends is invaluable.
Diagnosis might begin with a callback after a screening mammogram or after the patient notices a lump or other concerning breast symptom. The uncertain time spent waiting for test results can create an agonizing emotional whirlwind as the patient hopes for the best but may be unable to avoid imagining the worst. It’s common to experience a range of emotions that might include anger, fear, sadness, and denial.
A breast cancer diagnosis can change a person’s life instantly and dramatically. Life may seem to stand still as whatever other projects they have been involved in fade into the background and the cancer journey takes center stage. A newly diagnosed patient may dissociate under the stress of the situation and, as a result, have trouble understanding the medical information their provider is giving them. It can be immensely helpful to have a trusted family member present to ensure all questions are answered and the patient will be able to access all information shared in the appointment when they’re better prepared to process it.
Breast cancer treatment might include surgery (either lumpectomy or mastectomy), chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and/or hormone therapy. These treatments can give rise to hope for better health as well as fear and profound feelings of loss. The loss of a breast through mastectomy, hair loss due to chemotherapy, and the sometimes debilitating side effects of cancer treatments can dramatically alter a woman’s appearance as well as her sense of vitality. Many women report a sense of lost femininity during treatment due to changes in their appearance, sex drive, and/or fertility.
Connecting with other survivors, leaning on a strong social network, working with a trusted mental health therapist, and using reflective techniques like meditation and journaling can help patients navigate the mental and emotional challenges that accompany cancer survival. Solid social and mental health support can help patients move through these experiences with greater ease and use them as a foundation for future growth.
After the course of treatment is complete, it’s important to keep all recommended follow-up appointments. This helps catch any potential recurrence as early as possible for the best possible chance of successful treatment. After treatment, patients often experience lingering side effects like lymphedema (swelling due to lymph buildup), weakness, digestive upset, pain, and weight issues. Symptoms like these, combined with the emotionally and psychologically intense experience of cancer treatment, can make the transition back to “normal life” difficult. Additionally, follow-up exams can be a source of intense anxiety that can trigger PTSD symptoms in some patients.
The good news is that studies show that traumatic events like a cancer journey can also fuel growth. In fact, more people report personal growth than experiencing a psychiatric disorder following a traumatic event. Growth is more likely among patients who are better able to adapt to new experiences and accept new challenges, who can maintain optimism, and who have strong support networks. Individuals can enhance their capacity to grow through their cancer journeys by learning techniques for managing stress and anxiety; processing emotions with therapy, creative work, or conversations with supportive people; and connecting with others who are going through or have had similar experiences.
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle
In addition to keeping follow-up appointments and practicing self-care, healthy lifestyle choices are important for improving the odds of remaining cancer free. Patients should talk to their doctors to create an exercise plan for the treatment phase and beyond. Regular exercise can help maintain and rebuild muscle strength, enhance energy and self-esteem, and help control nausea, anxiety, and depression. Making sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables will help restore vitality as well as provide a degree of protection against cancer development.
Breast Cancer Care at Iowa Radiology
Iowa Radiology provides state-of-the-art breast cancer screening, diagnosis, and follow-up imaging. In partnership with the John Stoddard Cancer Center and UnityPoint Health, we have earned accreditation by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers, having demonstrated compliance with the organization’s high standards in our clinical services, leadership, research, professional education, community outreach, and quality improvement. Since our founding, we’ve devoted our practice to a patient-centered approach and exceptional customer service in our clinics. We aim to make our patients as comfortable as possible during their time with us. If you ever have a question about services at any of our facilities, our patient and caring staff is here to help.
To learn about diagnosis and treatment of common types of breast cancer, access our complimentary ebook.
American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2022–2024. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, Inc. 2022. Accessed October 13, 2023. https://www.cancer.org/content/dam/cancer-org/research/cancer-facts-and-statistics/breast-cancer-facts-and-figures/2022-2024-breast-cancer-fact-figures-acs.pdf.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. Post-Traumatic Growth and Cancer. https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/post-traumatic-growth-and-cancer. Published July 2022. Accessed October 13, 2023.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. What is Cancer Survivorship? https://www.cancer.net/survivorship/what-cancer-survivorship. Published July 2021. Accessed October 13, 2023.
Breast Cancer Research Foundation. What We Talk About When We Talk About Breast Cancer Survivorship. Published March 30, 2022. Accessed October 13, 2023. https://www.bcrf.org/blog/breast-cancer-survivorship-common-issues-after-treatment/.
Ciria-Suarez L, Jiménez-Fonseca P, Palacín-Lois M, et al. Breast cancer patient experiences through a journey map: A qualitative study. PLoS One. 2021 Sep 22;16(9):e0257680.https://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257680.