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Living with breast cancer

6-minute read

Key facts

  • Treatment and survival rates for breast cancer have improved over recent decades.
  • The physical changes that can accompany breast cancer treatment include changes to your body shape, hair loss, early menopause and loss of fertility.
  • Cancer can affect you — and those close to you — emotionally. Connecting with support services can help you to deal with these challenges.
  • Continuing to work can help provide a sense of normality. Be realistic about what you can achieve alongside treatment.

Breast cancer can post many emotional, physical and practical challenges. It’s not easy, but women can learn to cope with cancer and its different challenges if they have the right support.

What are the physical changes that can occur during and after breast cancer?

Treatment and survival rates for breast cancer have improved over recent decades. However, breast cancer treatment still comes with physical changes and side effects that may affect how a woman thinks and feels about her body.

Changes to body shape

After breast cancer surgery, such as a masectomy or breast conserving surgery, you may feel unhappy with your body size or shape, or be distressed about scars. But the ideal body size or shape differs over time and from person to person. What others find attractive about you goes beyond your physical appearance.

Hair loss

Hair loss from chemotherapy can range from the mild thinning of hair to complete loss. It’s OK to feel upset about hair loss and how it makes you feel about yourself, even while you are dealing with bigger health issues. Some women find that it helps to wear a wig, scarf or hat while their hair grows back, while others prefer to keep their head uncovered.

Early menopause

Younger women who get breast cancer may have to cope with early menopause brought about by cancer treatment. Symptoms may include hot flushes, vaginal dryness and loss of sexual desire.

Fertility

Certain breast cancer treatments can affect your fertility. If you want to have children in the future, ask your treatment team about fertility and family planning before you start breast cancer treatment.

Discuss with your health team:

Ask your health team about ways to help you deal with the changes breast cancer can bring. For example:

How does breast cancer affect you emotionally?

Common reactions after being diagnosed with breast cancer include feeling shocked, angry, anxious, sad and/or depressed.

You may feel isolated, or wonder why breast cancer has happened to you. It’s important to reach out for support. Share how you’re feeling with your treatment team, your partner and family members or friends you trust.

Helping children with change

Change — particularly when caused by illness in the family — can be unsettling for children. It’s important for affected parents to talk with their children about cancer. Answer their questions as honestly as you can with words they understand. Share your feelings with them too, not just the facts. Get tips for talking to kids about cancer at the Cancer Council NSW’s website talking to children about cancer.

Helping family and friends with change

Your family and friends will want to help you however they know how — but it may help to give them some direction on how to react, how they can care for you, and if their words or behaviours don’t help. They may need support too. Find more advice on the Cancer Australia website.

Helping your partner with change

Your partner may feel stressed about your diagnosis, even while trying to appear strong for you. Remember that everyone copes with change in their own way, and be open with one another about how you are feeling. Attending appointments together can helpful and give your partner the chance to ask your healthcare providers questions.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Other advice

  • Try to ignore well-meaning but unhelpful advice and horror stories from friends and family. Your journey is unique to you.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional and emotional help (such as from a counsellor) — it’s OK to be not OK.
  • Consider joining a cancer support group to connect with others sharing a similar experience to you.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What are the practical aspects of living with breast cancer?

Finances

Breast cancer treatment can be a big financial burden. Breast Cancer Network Australia’s has information on Financial and Practical Assistance detailing what benefits, subsidies and services you may be able to access.

Work

You may find it helpful to keep working to give normality and structure to your life. But it's important to be realistic about what you can achieve alongside treatment and side effects. Talk to your employer to work out a suitable arrangement for you.

Help in the home

The Australian Government’s in-home care program provides child care in your home. You must be eligible for the program and there are limited allocation places. To find out more about your eligibility for the program, contact the Family Assistance Office or call 13 61 50.

Resources and support

There is a range of support services to help Australians cope with breast cancer:

  • Call the Breast Cancer Network Australia's (BCNA) helpline on 1800 500 258 for information about living with breast cancer.
  • Connect with a BCNA online support group to share experiences and seek advice.
  • The NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service has fact sheets on early breast cancer translated into several languages.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2020


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