Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Two of the most frequently asked questions by someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer are “What treatment do I need?" and "How long will it take to recover from treatment?"

Whether the diagnosis is de novo or a recurrence, these questions need to be answered before decisions about treatment and recovery can be made.

If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, you will need to consider how the time needed for cancer treatment, as well as healing after, will affect your life. You'll need to make plans regarding employment or school, as well as family responsibilities.

Treatment and Recovery

Your healthcare provider might be able to give you an estimate of how long each treatment ordinarily takes, but you won't be able to get a precise timeline. Many factors affect an individual’s response to treatment and influence recovery.

Your experience won't be exactly the same as someone else's, even if you have the same type of cancer and are receiving the same treatment.

The stage of your cancer will also affect your treatment timeline. Breast cancer is staged to help doctors plan an individualized treatment. The time required for each treatment varies. For example, early-stage breast cancer treatment can take several months, if not longer.

Recovery time depends on the treatments used and their side effects. Treatments for breast cancer may be standard, but the experience of treatment and recovery time is influenced by the stage of cancer at diagnosis, the individual patient, and other factors.

Breast Cancer Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Staging Breast Cancer

Once your breast cancer diagnosis is confirmed, the next step is to find out whether it has spread. If it has, your doctors need to determine how far it has spread. This process is referred to as staging.

Staging breast cancer isn't just important for determining the best treatment, it's also necessary for assessing whether the treatment is successful.

Additional tests may be needed to determine the stage of breast cancer, such as a chest x-ray, other imaging scans, and blood work. These steps will add to the overall time spent in the pre-treatment phase.

Once all the tests have been reviewed, breast cancer can be staged. The stages for breast cancer begin with 0 and go up to IV (4).

Stage 0 breast cancer is in-situ, meaning it has not spread beyond the site where it originated and is not invading nearby breast tissue. Cancers at stages I through IV have spread to varying degrees, including into surrounding tissue or lymph nodes.

The lower the stage number, the less cancer has spread. Sub-stages are indicated by the letters A, B, and C. Like with lower numbers, earlier letters correspond to a better stage.

Once cancer has been staged, standard treatment can be started. Treatments like radiation and chemotherapy can be appropriate for cancers at more than one stage, while others (such as targeted therapy) may be offered in advanced stages.

Likewise, surgery may be an initial recommendation for cancers at a lesser stage, but it's not usually the first-line treatment for metastatic cancer—if it's used at all.

Standard treatment for breast cancer may include one or more of the following:

  1. Surgery is part of most breast cancer treatment plans, but there are several different options.
    1. Lumpectomy. Considered breast-conserving surgery, a lumpectomy is most often recommended for patients with early-stage breast cancer. During the procedure, the cancerous tumor is removed along with a surrounding margin of tissue. The surgery is usually a same-day procedure and is performed at an ambulatory surgery center. As long as there are no complications (such as the need for re-excision to open the surgical site and remove additional tissue to ensure clean margins) most people can resume normal activities two weeks after surgery.
    2. Mastectomy. During a mastectomy, the entire breast is removed. Recovery time depends on whether a simple or modified radical mastectomy is required. A bi-lateral or "double" mastectomy is the removal of both breasts. Barring any complications, a mastectomy usually requires a two-day hospital stay. If a patient chooses to have reconstruction immediately after a mastectomy, recovery may be longer. Most people go back to their normal activities within a month of having a simple mastectomy, but more involved surgeries, those with complications, or additional breast reconstruction, can take longer.
    3. Breast Reconstruction. Some patients who undergo a mastectomy have reconstructive surgery to build a new breast. The surgery can either be done immediately following a mastectomy or scheduled for a later date. Depending on the type of reconstruction, more than one surgery may be needed. The complexity of the procedure and whether there are post-surgical complications will dictate the recovery time. If someone needs to have radiation therapy, the reconstruction may be delayed until treatment is complete.
  2. Radiation Therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells or at least prevent them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy used for breast cancer treatment: external and internal. External radiation therapy uses a machine to radiate the breast. Treatment with this form of radiation typically lasts six to seven weeks. Internal radiation procedures use needles, seeds, wires, or catheters to deliver radioactive substances directly into the breast. Internal radiation therapy can take as few as five days or up to three weeks to complete.
  3. Chemotherapy uses drugs to slow or stop the growth of cancerous cells or kill cancer cells that already exist. It can be administered orally or via a needle placed in a vein. Chemotherapy is a systemic therapy, which means it can affect the entire body and cause side effects. A medical oncologist will make recommendations for using chemotherapy based on the stage and other characteristics of a tumor. Chemotherapy is usually given every two to three weeks (cycle) for three to six months (course), though it may continue beyond a year if it keeps working. A person receiving chemo will usually have three weeks to recover between cycles for as long as the course continues.
  4. Targeted Therapy uses drugs to attack cancer cells without harming normal cells. These drugs work by targeting changes in cancer cells that make them different from normal cells. Targeted drug therapy tends to have fewer side effects than chemotherapy and may even work when chemo has failed. The amount of recovery time from treatment varies from patient to patient.
  5. Hormone Therapy slows or stops the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors. The therapy works by blocking the body’s ability to produce hormones or by interfering with hormone action. When hormone therapy is used to reduce the chance of breast cancer recurrence after completion of active treatment, it may be taken in pill form every day for five or more years.

Metastatic Breast Cancer

About 6% of people with breast cancer are found to have metastatic disease when they are first diagnosed.

At stage IV, cancer has spread to distant organs, such as the bone, brain, lungs, and liver. Therefore, metastatic breast cancer is treated differently than cancers at earlier stages.

Surgery is not usually performed to treat metastatic disease unless the tumor is causing pain or discomfort. Chemotherapy, radiation treatments, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormonal therapy may be offered to someone with metastatic disease, but a doctor will likely recommend having them one at a time rather than combined.

When someone has metastatic breast cancer, treatment is primarily focused on extending and improving the quality of their life.

Emotional Recovery

While it may be possible to put a timeline on certain aspects of physical recovery, the same is not true for the emotional recovery from a diagnosis of breast cancer.

People with breast cancer may especially feel this during the months of physically and emotionally exhausting treatments. While finishing treatment may come as a relief, there are still emotions that need healing.

Feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, and loss of self-confidence following breast cancer are not uncommon. There is also the very real fear that the cancer will come back.

Changes in body image can contribute to reduced self-image. Intimate relationships can also go through changes after a breast cancer diagnosis as well as throughout treatment.

Accepting the “new normal” is challenging and takes time. Loved ones and friends may inadvertently add to the burden of those recovering from breast cancer.

For example, they might expect a loved one with cancer to return to their old selves as soon as treatment is completed. However, this is an unrealistic expectation: there needs to be a period of adjustment following the end of active treatment.

While the process can't be rushed, but it can be made easier. Therapy or joining a post-treatment support group may ease the "emotional fallout" of a breast cancer diagnosis and its treatment. Connecting with others can also help people transition to life as a survivor.

No two people experience breast cancer in exactly the same way, so it's important to identify with—not compare—the breast cancer experiences of others in a support group.

A Word From Verywell

When treatment for early-stage breast cancer is a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, people often find they can keep a nearly normal work routine. Some people are able to return to work a few days after surgery.

If you're having radiation treatment in the weeks following surgery, you may be able to schedule treatment before or after your workday. The effects of radiation therapy are cumulative. Fatigue, the primary side effect, usually doesn't set in until after several treatments are complete.

Patients being treated with chemotherapy or targeted therapy may have busier treatment schedules and more intense side effects. As a result, they may not be able to keep working. However, if they can work from home, they may be able to manage a reduced work schedule while having and recovering from treatment.

The support of family, friends, and other survivors can be a great help and comfort to those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Support groups can provide emotional resources as well as discussions about treatment and recovery.

Loved ones can be supportive by helping a person going through treatment take occasional "time outs" from the demands of breast cancer, such as going shopping, having lunch together, or seeing a movie. Most of all, loved ones can offer support by understanding that the timeline for recovery is different for everyone and cannot be rushed.

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Article Sources

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  1. PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board. Breast Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®): Health Professional Version. In: PDQ Cancer Information Summaries [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Cancer Institute (US). Updated October 11, 2019.

  2. National Cancer Institute. Breast Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Updated October 11, 2019.

  3. American Cancer Society. Breast-conserving Surgery (Lumpectomy). Updated September 18, 2019.

  4. American Cancer Society. Mastectomy. Updated September 18, 2019.

  5. American Cancer Society. Breast Reconstruction Options. Updated September 18, 2019.

  6. National Cancer Institute. External Radiation Therapy. 2019.

  7. National Cancer Institute. Internal Radiation Therapy. 2019.

  8. National Cancer Institute. Systemic Therapy. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. 2019.

  9. National Cancer Institute. Targeted Therapy. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. 2019.

  10. American Cancer Society. Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer. Updated September 18, 2019.

  11. American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2019-2020. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, Inc. 2019.

  12. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Breast Cancer - Metastatic: Types of Treatment. Updated April 2019.

  13. National Cancer Institute. Feelings and Cancer. Updated August 20, 2018.

  14. American Cancer Society. Coping With Radiation Treatment. Updated October 26, 2017.

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