You’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone the first phase of treatment: surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or hormone therapy. Now comes the next step in your journey: taking good care of yourself, monitoring your health, and learning habits to promote good health for the long run.
As a breast cancer survivor, healthy habits and regular doctor visits are even more important now than before your cancer diagnosis. You may have an increased risk for certain health conditions.
After your initial breast cancer treatment, your physician will follow your health even more closely than before to assess the effectiveness of follow-up treatment, monitor side effects and watch for the potential development of any related health conditions or symptoms of cancer recurrence.
Conditions that breast cancer survivors may be at risk for range from fatigue and memory problems to more serious issues such as bone loss, heart trouble, and reproductive cancers.
Studies have shown that women treated for breast cancer are at increased risk for osteoporosis due to chemotherapy drugs that decrease bone mineral density and the body’s production of estrogen. While estrogen feeds cancer, it also protects the body against bone loss. Cancer drugs are not the only factor, however – the same patients who experience bone loss often have other contributing factors, such as vitamin D deficiency. Doctors and researchers are weighing the merits of vitamin D supplements or osteoporosis drugs for breast cancer survivors with bone loss.
Breast cancer treatment can also be hard on the heart. Studies have documented cardiac side effects in breast cancer patients such as heart disease, hypertension, weakening of the heart muscle, heart valve dysfunction, and congestive heart failure. Some chemotherapy drugs can damage the heart muscle, while others have no adverse effects. Radiation therapy can affect the heart and surrounding tissue because of its close proximity to the breast area that’s being treated.
Your physician will also keep a close eye on your reproductive health after breast cancer. Women who are taking certain drugs as part of their treatment regimen may be at increased risk for endometrial cancer. The breast cancer link to other cancers can also be genetic: research has shown that women who test positive for certain breast cancer genes (BRCA-1 and BRCA-2) are also at increased risk for ovarian cancer.
A typical schedule of follow-up exams includes a yearly mammogram (if you have had a lumpectomy and radiation, this would begin six months after radiation therapy concludes); a physical exam every four to six months for five years, and annually after five years; and a pelvic exam every year, if you have not had a hysterectomy.
In addition to routine exams, your physician may conduct other periodic tests to watch for other conditions that may develop as a consequence of your cancer treatment, as well as screen for a cancer recurrence. If breast cancer recurs, the most common place for a recurrence is the bone, followed by the lungs and the liver.
Your doctor may recommend periodic bone density testing, bone scans, chest X-rays, blood tests, or imaging tests if your treatment regime or health history indicates that closer follow-up is necessary.
As you enter this stage of your breast cancer journey, take the time to care for yourself – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Talk with your physician regularly and ask questions. Learn about the choices you can make that impact your health, from nutrition to exercise. And celebrate your successes along the way!
If you’re a breast cancer survivor or a newly diagnosed patient, visit www.lakewalesmedicalcenter.comto learn more about ongoing treatment options, and your role in maintaining good health. Simply click on “Health Resources” and “Interactive Tools” and click on “Breast Cancer Quiz,” to test your knowledge, or learn more about your risk for related conditions by taking the “Osteoporosis Risk Assessment,” or “Ovarian Cancer Risk Assessment.”
story by Carolyn Pass, MD
BIO: Dr. Carolyn Pass, board-certified in Internal Medicine and Primary Care, is a member of the Medical Staff at Lake Wales Medical Center.