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Living with breast cancer

7-minute read

A diagnosis of breast cancer may change how you think about your body, so it is important to give yourself time to come to terms with it. Your local Breast Care Nurse will be able to provide information and support to help you navigate the changes and decisions during this time.

Your body and your breasts after treatment

Dealing with changes to your body

A diagnosis of breast cancer may change how you think about your body. Women may react differently to the changes to their body due to breast cancer treatment. Some women react positively but others find it more difficult to cope. It is important to give yourself time to come to terms with any changes to your body.

Early menopause

Although most breast cancer occurs in women over 50 who have been through the menopause, younger women get breast cancer too and will have to cope with early menopause brought on by treatment for cancer. Symptoms can include hot flushes, vaginal dryness and loss of sexual desire. Talk to your healthcare team about any symptoms you have and they will be able to help.

Prosthesis

A breast prosthesis is an artificial breast which can be worn inside your bra to replace the breast that has been removed. Soon after a mastectomy, you will be given a lightweight foam breast to wear until the area affected by surgery or radiotherapy has healed. After it has healed, you will be offered a silicone prosthesis. Prostheses come in many different sizes and shapes and you should be able to find one that suits you.

Reconstruction

If you did not have immediate breast reconstruction (carried out at the time of mastectomy), you can have reconstruction later, called a 'delayed reconstruction'. There are two main methods of breast reconstruction. These are reconstruction using your own tissue and reconstruction using an implant. Which type is more suitable for you depends on many factors, including the treatment you have had, any ongoing treatment and the size of your breasts. Talk to your healthcare team about which reconstruction is suitable for you.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) continues to review and assess breast implants available in the Australian market.

In September 2019, the TGA decided to recall and suspend a number of breast implants and tissue expanders due to a small risk of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma. The list of these products can be found here. Consumer information on the recall and risks can be found here.

If you have symptoms such as pain, swelling, a rash or a lump in your breast, armpit or elsewhere or you are concerned about changes in your breast, please discuss these with your doctor (GP), surgeon or other appropriate medical professional as soon as possible.

For more information and the latest updates, see the TGA’s online breast implant hub.

Hair loss

Some types of chemotherapy for breast cancer cause total hair loss, some cause the hair to thin out, while others have no effect on your hair. When the hair grows back it may be more curly, thicker or finer than it was before treatment. It may grow back a slightly different colour.

Coping with hair loss

There are many options women find helpful when having chemotherapy - some cut their hair short so that it’s less upsetting if their hair does fall out, some women choose to wear a wig while their hair is growing back. Others choose to wear a scarf or hat, while some women prefer to keep their head uncovered.

Depending on where you live, you might be able to go to a Look Good Feel Better workshop. These are free of charge and provide tips and advice about dealing with changes to the way you look caused by cancer treatment. Workshops are available in capital cities and other major centres.

Breast cancer and fertility

Some treatments for breast cancer can affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant. Once treatment for breast cancer has finished there’s no reliable test to find out if a woman can still become pregnant.

If a woman’s periods stop for a year or more, it’s likely that menopause will be permanent. If menopause is permanent, it’s not possible to have children naturally.

If a woman does fall pregnant after treatment for breast cancer, there’s no evidence that this will increase the risk of breast cancer coming back.

If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and you were planning to have children before your diagnosis, speak to your oncologist before starting treatment for breast cancer. It may be possible to see a fertility specialist to discuss the available options.

Managing the emotional aspects of breast cancer 

Relationships with friends and family

It is not always easy to talk about cancer, either for you or your family and friends. You may sense that some people feel awkward around you or avoid you. Being open about how you feel and what your family and friends can do to help may put them at ease. But do not feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself, if that is what you need.

Your sex life

Breast cancer and its treatment can affect your sex life. It is common for women to lose interest in sex after treatment for breast cancer. Your treatment may leave you feeling very tired. You may feel shocked, confused or depressed about being diagnosed with cancer. You may be upset by the changes to your body or grieving the loss of your breasts or, in some cases, your fertility.

It is understandable that you may not feel like having sex while coping with all this. Try to share your feelings with your partner. If you have problems with sex that aren't getting better with time, you may want to speak to a counsellor or sex therapist.

Contraception during and after breast cancer treatment

Although some breast cancer treatments can cause menstrual periods to stop, this doesn’t necessarily mean a woman can’t become pregnant during treatment. It’s important for women who are sexually active to continue to use contraception during and after breast cancer treatment.

There’s no evidence about whether or not it’s safe to take the oral contraceptive pill (‘the Pill’) or use implants (with etonogestrel) during or after treatment for breast cancer. Therefore it’s recommended that women use non-hormonal forms of contraception, such as condoms, diaphragms, intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) or male or female sterilisation.

It’s still possible to catch sexually transmitted infections (STIs) after menopause. Condoms are the most effective way of protecting against STIs.

Talk to other people

If you have questions, your doctor or nurse may be able to reassure you. You may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor or psychologist, or to someone at a specialist helpline. Your doctor's surgery will have information on these. You can also call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.

Some people find it helpful to talk to other people who have breast cancer, either at a local support group or in an internet chatroom. Click here for information on how to connect with others on Breast Cancer Network Australia’s online network.

Breast Care Nurses

Your local Breast Care Nurse can be a wealth of information and support for you and your family, and can help with:

  • liaising with your medical team and co-ordinating your appointments
  • explaining treatments to you and your family
  • attending medical appointments with you
  • advising on and organising accommodation if you are travelling for treatment
  • helping you to manage side effects of treatments, including treating radiotherapy burns
  • helping you to talk to your family about your diagnosis
  • arranging for someone to come in to your home to provide practical help, for example housework
  • linking you to support services in your local area
  • providing emotional support
  • providing information on breast prostheses and breast reconstruction

Ask your doctor, phone the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20, enquire at your local hospital or community centre or search McGrath Breast Care Nurse for details of a Breast Care Nurse near you.

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

Last reviewed: July 2018


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