What It Means to Be a Breast Cancer Survivor

Living well after breast cancer looks different for everyone

Breast cancer impacts a person long after treatment and recovery, and being a breast cancer survivor looks different for everyone. Regardless of how a person defines survivorship, there are long-term risks and concerns to consider as a survivor.

This article will discuss breast cancer survival, present survival rates by cancer stage, offer tips on living well, and provide information about the risk of recurrence and ongoing follow-up needs.

Breast cancer survivor.

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Different Takes on Breast Cancer Survivorship

Being a breast cancer survivor means different things to different people. Some people may call themselves a survivor during treatment, others may not use the word "survivor" until the cancer is in remission, and others may not want to call themselves a survivor until many cancer-free years have passed.

Regardless of a person's cancer stage, breast cancer typically has a high survival rate. Therefore, adopting a healthy lifestyle can protect against the cancer returning, new cancers developing, further complications forming, and treatment side effects persisting.

Breast Cancer Survival Rates

Breast cancer generally has a high survival rate, with over 90% of people fully recovering after five years. These rates change, however, based on different factors, such as race, location of the cancer, and lifestyle.

Localized, Regional, and Distant Breast Cancer

Breast cancer survival rates are tracked by whether the cancer is localized, regional, or distant. Localized cancer is contained within the breast. Those with localized breast cancer have a 99% five-year survival rate.

Regional cancer is found in nearby lymph nodes outside of the breast. Those with regional breast cancer have an 86% five-year survival rate.

Distant cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Those with distant breast cancer have a 29% five-year survival rate.

Other Factors

Beyond cancer location in the body, other factors impacting survivorship include race, age, overall health, response to treatment, the speed at which the tumor spreads, and other factors.

Lifestyle Tips for Living Well After Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can impact your life long after you've recovered. Adopting a lifestyle that promotes physical and mental health will help support overall well-being as a cancer survivor. Here are some ways to live well as a breast cancer survivor:

  • Schedule regular follow-up medical care.
  • Recognize mental health disorder symptoms and follow up with a mental health provider if you're experiencing signs of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Maintain regular exercise to help with the long-term effects of treatment, including fatigue and bone loss.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Work with your healthcare provider or nutritionist to ensure you are getting sufficient vitamins and nutrients.
  • Work with a pain specialist for chronic pain and neuropathy (nerve damage).
  • Use nonhormonal, water-based lubricants for sexual dysfunction concerns.

Breast Cancer Survivors and Mental Illness

The prevalence of depression and anxiety is around 22% in breast cancer survivors; this is higher than the rate for general cancer. Getting regular screenings and recognizing symptoms is an important way to prevent mental health disorders when recovering from breast cancer.

Adjusting Once Treatment Ends

Some people experience ongoing physical and mental health challenges even after treatment ends. These can include:

  • Ongoing anxiety and depression
  • Sleep issues
  • Fatigue
  • Continuing pain
  • Lymphedema (swelling in the skin)
  • Vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats)
  • Infertility

These ongoing concerns can make it difficult to readjust to life socially, professionally, in relationships, and in other aspects of life.

Risk of Recurrence

Recurrence is dangerous and is the leading cause of death from breast cancer, mainly due to cancer metastasizing (spreading) to other body parts, such as distant organs or bones. Breast cancer recurrence happens when cancer that was determined to be in remission returns. This differs from a new cancer forming.

Recurrence can occur within the first five years of being diagnosed with breast cancer or much later, after 10 or even 15 years from the initial diagnosis. Ongoing screenings and check-ins with a healthcare provider can help detect cancer recurrence early.

Breast Cancer Recurrence and Healthy Lifestyles

Some research suggests that physical exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and other psychosocial factors protect against breast cancer recurrence.

Ongoing Follow-Up Care

Follow-up care will likely continue for many years following a breast cancer diagnosis, even after the cancer is in remission. Expected follow-up care includes:

  • Regular physicals with a primary healthcare provider
  • Ongoing screenings for cancer recurrence or new cancer and education for screening at home
  • Regular mammograms
  • Ongoing endocrine therapy treatment
  • Conversations with medical professionals about body image concerns, cognitive impairment from treatment, cardiotoxicity (treatment-related heart problems), and mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress
  • Treatment for inflammation and pain management
  • Treatment of premature menopause symptoms, if applicable


Being a survivor of breast cancer means different things to different people. For many, it's part of their lifelong identity. Breast cancer has a high survivorship rate of 90% after five years; that rate varies depending on whether the cancer has spread and the person's race, age, and lifestyle factors.

Regardless of how long you've been a breast cancer survivor, you can improve your lifestyle to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. Some examples include receiving regular follow-up care, recognizing mental health symptoms if they arise, exercising, limiting alcohol use, not smoking, and eating a healthy diet.

Even with lifestyle adjustments, it is common to experience long-term side effects from cancer treatment, including mental health condition, sleep issues, fatigue, and continuing pain. Working with a medical and mental healthcare team can help make life after breast cancer more manageable.

A Word From Verywell

As a breast cancer survivor, it's common for your identity, relationships, and sense of self to change over time. As you navigate what it means to be a survivor, pay close attention to your mental and physical well-being. Check in with your healthcare provider, mental health provider, and other breast cancer survivors to stay healthy in recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens to survivors after breast cancer goes away?

    After cancer is in remission, ongoing medical and follow-up care is still needed. There is a continued risk for cancer recurrence and other physical and mental health symptoms to arise even 10 or 15 years after breast cancer remission. Attending ongoing medical follow-up appointments can help detect and prevent future complications from breast cancer.

  • Is breast cancer treatable?

    Yes. Breast cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer. It has an overall survival rate of 90%. Factors affecting survival rates include the spread of cancer, race, age, and lifestyle.

  • Does breast cancer increase the risk of other cancers?

    Having breast cancer can slightly increase your risk of developing other cancers. Still, most people develop another breast cancer rather than other cancers after breast cancer remission.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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