Despite the relief of cancer recovery there can be a feeling of “what now”? Especially as the previous period of your life was dominated by hospital appointments, surgery and the routine around chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment. Many people find they miss the security of regular hospital checks and the support from the cancer care staff.
The consultant, cancer care nurses, your GP and your pharmacist can help you with a plan for follow up care. Recommendations include regular physical examinations, blood tests and mammograms. Breast cancer can return in the breast or other parts of the body and those with previous cancer are at more risk of developing cancer. Symptoms of cancer recurrence to be vigilant for include a new lump in the breast, under the arms, or along the chest wall; bone pain, bone fractures; headaches, seizures; chronic coughing or breathing issues; severe fatigue; and nausea or vomiting. There is a lifetime risk of reoccurrence after the first episode of breast cancer. Even if the breast cancer was 20 years ago, you are still at increased risk of reoccurrence; therefore regular screenings in the years following cancer are important. Regular check-ups mean risk of cancer reoccurrence goes down.
Surgery (mastectomy or lumpectomy) is one of the main treatment techniques used for breast cancer. The surgery can leave the breast scarred and a different shape and size than prior to surgery. A mastectomy scar is across the front of the chest and into the armpit. A scar in the armpit should not be noticeable from the front. Initially the scar will be red or darker if your skin is a darker tone. It can feel quite firm and may be slightly raised. With time it will flatten and fade. For women with dark skin or fair or freckled skin, the scars can take longer to settle down. Contact your surgery team if you have worries about how the scar is healing.
Late effects of surgery
Some women experience an uncomfortable sensation many describe as feeling like a tight cord running from the armpit to the back of their hand. This sensation is known as cording. It can develop weeks or months after surgery and is due to hardened lymph vessels. In more severe cases it makes it difficult to move the arm; however it gradually improves over a few months. Physiotherapy and massage may be required to improve it in some cases. If lymph nodes removed as part of the surgery or damaged during chemotherapy/radiation, lymphedema (swelling of the hand and arm) may occur, even years after treatment. There is an increased risk of this for the rest of your life.
To be continued...next week I will discuss after effects of breast cancer treatment