When you finish your cancer treatment, a new stage in your life begins. Women sometimes describe the first few months as a time of change and anxiety. But they also often say that life takes on new meaning and that they arrive at new and important understandings.
You can expect things to keep changing as you begin your recovery. It's not so much "getting back to normal" as it is finding out what's normal for you now. That might mean changing your diet, your activities and your sources of support.
After treatment ends, you still have important medical business to attend to—your follow-up care. This means regular checkups to test for recurrence (your cancer’s return) or metastasis (your cancer’s spread). Doctors also screen for other types of cancer and for any difficulties caused by your treatment. Most women have checkups every 3-4 months for the first 2-3 years and once or twice a year after that.
Take an active role in your follow-up care, and you can empower yourself to get the most out of your checkups:
Plan: Work with your doctor to plan your best care—your plan should fit your unique circumstances. You can also empower yourself by creating a Survivorship Care Plan. This is a summary of your diagnosis, treatment and recommended follow-up care. Develop or update your survivorship care plan. Find some helpful tools at Journey Forward.
For additional guidance in planning your care, visit the American Society of Clinical and Oncology’s breast cancer follow-up care guide. You can print and use it as your care continues.
Ask questions— Bring a list of questions with you. Here are some common ones to get you started:
- What tests do I need?
- How can I relieve pain and manage other problems?
- How long will it take for me to recover and feel more like myself?
- Is there anything I can or should be doing to keep cancer from coming back?
- Do I need to worry about any side effect issues from my treatments? (Examples include bone health from hormone suppressors and heart health from anthracyclines.)
Don’t forget to ask for more resources or better explanations if you need them. Make sure you get a chance to ask all your questions: Ask the most important ones first in case your doctor runs out of time, request more time next appointment and ask if you can call. You can also bring a supportive friend or relative to take notes and ask good questions. Remember to keep your own records of your visits, too.
Additionally, you should consider keeping a copy of all tests for your own records along with detailed information about what drugs your treatment plan included.
Communicate: During each visit, tell your doctor about any symptoms, pain or physical or emotional problems you might have. Share any medicines or other treatments you’re using and discuss any changes in your family medical history, including any new cancers.
Stay Vigilant: You can play an extremely important role in checking for recurrence. Many times recurrences aren’t spotted for the first time at follow-up meetings—often women suspect or find recurrences themselves between appointments. So stay vigilant for changes to your health, and tell your doctor about anything concerning. Remember, however, that many health changes will come from something unrelated to your cancer. Talk to your doctor, and you can be certain.
Ask your doctor what rule they use for reporting a symptom. For example, they might report a symptom that lasts for more than two weeks.
Understanding your family history can help you and your doctor better understand your risk for other types of cancer. This helps you choose the right follow-up screenings and tests. Make a chart of your family’s medical history. For each blood relation, include:
- Any cancer or other chronic disease, including their age when diagnosed
- Any surgeries, including dates
- If possible, the date of birth and date and cause of death for family members who have died
YSC continues to offer you a network of support and wide array of resources as you enter the post-treatment phase of your cancer experience. Search resources with our ResourceLink database. Explore our website and learn more about complementary modalities, quality of life and practical concerns.
Finally, we’ll always welcome you in our efforts to make life better for all survivors. Turn your experience and passion into action as a breast cancer advocate.