Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Two of the most frequently asked questions by someone diagnosed with breast cancer—whether de novo or as a recurrence—are “What treatment do I need?" and "How long will my treatment and recovery take?" These questions need to be answered before a patient can make decisions about managing employment and family responsibilities during active treatment and recovery time.

Treatment and Recovery

While a patient may be given estimates of how long each treatment ordinarily takes, there are too many factors that can affect an individual’s response to treatment and physical recovery—too many to give a precise timeline. Early-stage breast cancer treatment can take months, if not longer, depending on the treatment plan.

Recovery time depends on the types of treatments and side effects of those treatments. While there are standard treatments for breast cancer, treatment and recovery time will vary from patient to patient depending on the stage of the breast cancer at the time of diagnosis. Before treatment can begin, a breast cancer needs to be staged so an individualized treatment plan can be developed.

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Staging Breast Cancer

After a diagnosis of breast cancer is confirmed, it is time to determine if it has spread and, if it has, how far it has spread. This process is described as staging. Staging a breast cancer is key, not only in determining the best way to treat it but also in assessing the successful outcome of treatment.

More tests may be needed to determine the stage of a breast cancer, including but not limited to a chest x-ray, scans, and blood work. This process also adds to the overall time in the pre-treatment phase.

When all the tests are reviewed, the cancer can be staged. A stage 0 breast cancer refers to an in-situ cancer, which is one that has not spread beyond the site where it began to invade nearby breast tissue. Stages I through IV are cancers that have spread.

Some of the stages indicate sub-stages using the letters A, B, and C. The lower the stage number, the less cancer spread. Within a stage, an earlier letter means a better stage. Breast cancers that have similar stages are usually treated similarly.

Once the cancer is staged, a patient can begin standard treatments which may include one or more of the following:

  1. Surgery is usually part of a breast cancer treatment plan, with options including:
    1. Lumpectomy. This is considered a breast-conserving surgery. It is the removal of the cancerous tumor and a surrounding margin of tissue. It is most often recommended for patients with early stage breast cancer. This surgery is a same-day procedure, usually performed in an ambulatory surgery center. Recovery time following this surgery without complications, such as having to have a re-excision to open the surgical site and remove additional tissue to insure clean margins, has an estimated recovery time of five to seven days.
    2. Mastectomy. This surgery involves removing the entire breast. Recovery time will depend on whether a patient needs a simple or modified radical mastectomy. A bi-lateral mastectomy involves the removal of both breasts. A mastectomy usually requires a two-day hospital stay barring any complications. If a woman chooses to have immediate reconstruction, this may also affect her recovery time. A simple mastectomy with no complications or breast reconstruction has a recovery time of one to four weeks.
    3. Breast Reconstruction. This is a surgery to build a new breast to replace the one surgically removed. It can be performed immediately following a breast being removed or done as a separate surgery at a later date. The complexity of the procedure will dictate recovery time as will any post-surgery complications. Depending on the type of reconstruction to create a new breast, it may involve more than one surgery to complete the process. Also, if a patient needs radiation therapy, reconstruction may be delayed until radiation treatment and recovery time is completed.
  2. Radiation Therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other forms of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses an external machine to radiate the breast. Treatment lasts six to seven weeks. Internal radiation uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters and is put directly into the breast. These procedures may take as little as five days while others will take up to three weeks to complete.
  3. Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells or kill cancer cells. It can be administered orally or into the vein. It is a systemic therapy and may affect the entire body causing side effects. A medical oncologist will recommend using chemotherapy based on the stage of the tumor and the characteristics of the tumor. Chemotherapy is usually given every two to three weeks for three to six months. Recovery times vary and patients are advised to plan for one to three months of recovery time—after completing treatment for each dose of chemotherapy.
  4. Targeted Therapy uses drugs to attack cancer cells without doing harm to normal cells. These drugs work by targeting changes in cancer cells that make them different from normal cells, even working at times when chemotherapy drugs fail to work. They often have less severe side effects than chemotherapy drugs. Recovery times will vary.
  5. Hormone Therapy slows or stops the growth of hormone-sensitive tumors by blocking the body’s ability to produce hormones or by interfering with hormone action. When hormone therapy is used to reduce the incidence of a breast cancer recurrence following the completion of active treatment, it is taken in pill form daily for five or more years.

Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer is treated differently than earlier stage breast cancers. Metastatic cancer, a Stage IV cancer, has spread to distant organs, such as the bone, brain, lungs, and liver. About 6 percent to 10 percent of new patients are metastatic when first diagnosed with breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer will always need to be treated. Treatment is about maintaining a good quality of life for the patient and extending life for as long as possible.

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 that needs to take place following a diagnosis of breast cancer. This is especially true with its months of physically and emotionally exhausting treatments.

While there is relief in finishing treatment, there are 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 of recurrence. Changes in body image may also result in a lessening of self-image and intimate relationships may be different after treatment. Accepting what is the “new normal” is a challenge and takes time.

Loved ones and friends may inadvertently add to the burden of the those recovering from breast cancer. They may expect patients to return to their old selves soon after treatment is completed. This is an unrealistic expectation. There needs to be a period of adjustment following the end of active treatment; it can’t be rushed. However, it can be made easier.

Therapy or joining a post-treatment support group may ease the emotional fallout of having had breast cancer. It may also help with the transition to life as a survivor. Since no two people experience breast cancer in exactly the same way, it is important to identify with—not compare—breast cancer experiences of others in a support group.

A Word From Verywell

When treatment for an early stage breast cancer is a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, it is possible to keep a nearly normal work routine. Returning to work can occur several days after surgery. Work during radiation treatment, which usually follows a few weeks after surgery, can be accomplished by scheduling treatment before beginning the work day or after the work day. Radiation has a cumulative effect—the primary side effect, fatigue, does not set in until after several treatments.

Patients, being treated with chemotherapy or targeted therapy may find that they can manage a reduced work schedule if permitted to work from home. Getting through treatment is easier with the support of friends and family. Taking “time outs” from all things breast cancer, such as a lunch out with a friend, shopping, or a movie goes a long way towards lifting the spirits.

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Article Sources

  • American Cancer Society. Targeted Therapy. Last Medical Review: 09/25/2014, Last Revised: 05/04/2016
  • National Cancer Institute. Chemotherapy.Posted: April 29, 2015
  • National Cancer Institute. Hormone Therapy.Reviewed: August 2, 2012