How Having Breast Cancer Can Change Your Life

When you are first diagnosed with breast cancer, you probably have no idea how cancer will change your life. You may think it's just a small bump in the road and you'll return to normal when treatment is done.

But having breast cancer is likely to present challenges you hadn't anticipated. You might realize that the tiredness you once complained of was nothing compared to cancer fatigue. But there may be positive changes as well. We are actually learning that many people who go through cancer treatment experience what's been termed "post-traumatic growth." In other words, having cancer can change you in positive ways.

While everyone experiences cancer differently, there are some changes that are nearly universal. Knowing what to expect at the onset may make it easier to cope as you go through breast cancer treatment.

Emotional Adjustments and Stages

Breast cancer is very likely to have emotional effects on you. You might feel betrayed by your own body and have a sense that you've lost control of your health.

Give yourself time to process the shock. If you are an optimistic person, you may be able to sustain that during treatment, but when faced with a life-threatening illness, many of us temper our outlook with caution. Feelings of fear, anger, and depression are normal.

Most people don't progress evenly through the stages of a life-threatening diagnosis and arrive at acceptance all at once. Instead, you may experience the common stages of denial, bargaining, anger, and depression.

Changes in Appearance

Your body image may change during breast cancer treatment, as may how others perceive you. Your breasts can be an important part of your female identity; if you require surgery, it can affect their symmetry and may result in scars, changes in shape, or the loss of one or both breasts.

A study of lumpectomy patients showed that a significant loss of symmetry could cause increased fear of recurrence and a greater risk for depression. You might consider breast reconstruction, a breast prosthesis, or counseling if this causes you distress.

If you need chemotherapy, you will probably lose your hair and may experience weight changes. Wigs, scarves, and hats can help you cope with hair loss. You may also want to look into wearing a cooling cap, a relatively new device that prevents hair from falling out in some cases. Diet and exercise can be very helpful for maintaining your weight and overall health.

Physical Challenges

Breast cancer treatments often result in side effects. If you're having radiation, you can expect skin changes, some fatigue, and possibly swelling in the treated area. Your oncologist can help you cope with these symptoms, which should fade with time.

Chemotherapy impacts your whole body and causes a variety of side effects, including nausea, fatigue, chemobrain, skin and nail changes, loss of appetite, changes in smell and taste, menopausal symptoms, and sleep disturbances. There are medications and coping strategies that will get you through these temporary symptoms, and it's important to note that some people have little or no nausea at all with current prevention regimens.

If you have a lymph node biopsy you may be at risk for lymphedema, but arm exercises can reduce arm swelling.

Effects on Fertility

Young, fertile women face special challenges from breast cancer treatment. Chemotherapy and follow-up hormone therapy can impact fertility and family planning. Many chemo drugs reduce estrogen levels and cause medical menopause. You may become temporarily or permanently infertile.

If you have not had children or have not yet completed your family, treatment may change your expectations about motherhood. Be sure to discuss these concerns with your oncologist ​before starting treatment. Ask about options for preserving your fertility. For women who have a mastectomy, breastfeeding with one breast is possible.

Changing Roles in Relationships

If you have always been a primary source of support for your family and friends—especially if you tend to take on a lot of household responsibilities and childcare—you may find that your roles and relationships change during treatment. As you experience emotional and physical changes, you may have to learn how to accept support and care from those around you.

Likewise, if people begin to withdraw, you may wonder why. Some people, though kind, are not equipped to handle the emotions of facing cancer. You might find new friends in a cancer support group or with coworkers and neighbors.

Sexuality and Intimacy

Breast cancer affects every aspect of your life—your body changes, your treatments take a toll, and even when you've recovered, scars remain. It may be difficult to deal with a new romance or even a long-term committed relationship during breast cancer treatments.

You may crave intimacy and affection, but because of chemically induced mood swings, low libido, vaginal dryness, and fatigue, sex might become challenging. Practice effective communication with your partner and keep things honest and real. Be willing to compromise and ask your gynecologist for help if necessary.

Work and Finances

Breast cancer treatment can cause financial stress. Contact your insurance provider and make sure you understand co-payments, insurance premiums, and medication costs.

If you are working at the time of your diagnosis, understand how federal laws protect your job and how you can keep your health insurance in case of a layoff. Be sure you know the sick leave policy at your workplace and how to keep good records. And save receipts for tax time—you may benefit from medical tax deductions.

A Word From Verywell

Once breast cancer treatment is over, you may want your old life back. Those who specialize in cancer rehabilitation claim it usually takes around five years before you are back to normal or at least at your "new normal," depending on how extensive your treatment was.

Many survivors feel like they have a second chance at life and are more willing to take risks and fulfill their dreams. Some people find journaling about their cancer journey to be helpful; it's often a way to make note of, and celebrate, the silver linings of your diagnosis.

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