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Self-care after breast cancer

Tāu ake whakaora i muri i te mate ūtaetae

Survival rates at five years after a breast cancer diagnosis are high. This means that there are many people living life after breast cancer.

Feelings after breast cancer treatment are often mixed. You may feel relief at having come through treatment and being alive, but you may also feel that your mana (spirit) has been damaged or taken. You're the most important person in your recovery and taking back control.

After having breast cancer, your risk of having another breast cancer is slightly greater than that of a person who has not had breast cancer. This shouldn't affect your outlook, as there are steps that you can take to reduce your risk and notice symptoms early.

Although a specialist or your general practice team may see you for follow up after treatment, your own self checks are the most important tool.

Healing after breast cancer

You can have both physical and emotional effects from you cancer and treatment. You may struggle to come to terms with changes in your body. You may have pain from surgery and radiation treatment or a swelling of your breast or arm called lymphoedema. If you're struggling with these symptoms, you should talk to your general practice team or breast nurse as there are treatments that can be helpful.

Anxiety and fatigue are also common problems after treatment. You may want to consider counselling to help you through the process. You can find a counsellor through the Mental Health Education and Resource Centre, or in the Family Services Directory.

After breast cancer, you're eligible for a free annual flu vaccine. This is recommended to keep you well.

Preventing breast cancer from returning

Following simple healthy living steps is essential to both your recovery and preventing cancer returning.

You may have been given anti-cancer medication to help to prevent the breast cancer from returning. These often work by blocking the hormones that can make breast cancers grow.

Following the suggestions on Reducing your risk of breast cancer can reduce the chance of further cancer.

Screening for breast cancer

Self-awareness is the most important tool in cancer surveillance. Report any new persistent signs or symptoms that are concerning you to your general practice team or breast nurse. Do not wait until your next appointment to report a concern. Act early.

Check your breasts and breast area every few months. Watch this video about looking for skin changes and feeling for lumps.

If you're on anti-cancer medication such as tamoxifen, be aware of any abnormal vaginal bleeding. Also talk to your general practice team or breast nurse if you're struggling with side effects.

See your general practice team early if you develop persistent bone pain, weight loss, night sweats, poor appetite, swelling of your puku (tummy), frequent headaches, vision problems, leg swelling or a cough. Also see your general practice team early if you have any of these symptoms and they get worse.

After treatment you'll have annual breast screening with mammograms. Either your specialist of general practice team will arrange this. After five years and while you're between the ages of 45 and 69, you'll go back to the BreastScreen Aotearoa National Breast Screening Programme for screening every two years. There may be slight differences for you, depending on your age and type of cancer.

Getting help after breast cancer

Following diagnosis and initial treatment of breast cancer, you'll be given a survivorship plan. This is a personalised document that outlines your post-cancer treatment, follow-up and what to look out for.

Your oncologist (cancer specialist) or surgeon may continue to see you after treatment. But for some women this may not be necessary and hospital appointments can sometimes be a stressful reminder of a difficult time. Talk to your general practice team and specialist about what feels right for you.

Breast nurses are available to support you during your treatment and while you have follow up with your specialist. The timing of when you're discharged back to your general practice team varies from person to person. After you're discharged from specialist care, your general practice team will be your first point of contact if you have any concerns. The breast nurses also provide education and psychological support and help you manage any wounds after surgery. They can be a first point of contact for you and your family while you're being treated for breast cancer.

Support with breast cancer

Several groups or organisations are available to support women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. They include the Breast Cancer Foundation and Cancer Society.

The Breast Cancer Foundation and Cancer Society provide support and advice to people with cancer and their whānau (families). They also have information about other services in your area that you may find helpful. You may be eligible for financial assistance through a disability allowance.

The Breast Cancer Foundation has released an app called mybc that links you to an online support community. Through mybc you can share questions and stories with others, chat privately with a breast nurse, track your progress, and keep track of appointments and medical reminders, plus get access to reliable medical information.

  HealthInfo recommends the following pages

On the next page: Treating breast cancer

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed September 2022.

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