Finishing your breast cancer treatment is a huge relief and a time to celebrate! Getting back into a more normal routine will be your main priority now. One part of getting back to your regular life should include a post-treatment plan. Breast cancer survivors need a customized post-treatment plan that includes:
- A follow-up care schedule
- Recommendations for managing current side effects and what to do if new side effects appear
- How to manage the emotions and concerns about survivorship and cancer recurrence
Now is the time to talk to your oncologist about a follow-up plan that you can also share with your primary care physician and/or your gynecologist.
Try not to think about a post-treatment care plan as a chore. Instead, think about it as planning for your future. And many breast cancer survivors go on to live long after breast cancer treatment is complete. Thanks to early detection and improved treatments, nine out of 10 women diagnosed with breast cancer will complete their treatment and live at least another five years. Eight out of 10 will live ten years or longer following treatment.
Stay on Schedule for Follow-Up Care Appointments with Your Oncologist and Other Medical Professionals
Continued care and monitoring ensure that your recovery process goes as well as possible. Some of the appointments you should expect:
Oncology Follow-Up Appointments are Critical
Your cancer care team will want you to come in for follow-up appointments every few months for a while, eventually getting to once a year after five years of being cancer-free. You may need to have images taken and blood work drawn before you meet with the oncologist. Often a PET scan is performed to look for recurrent cancer in the breast or other areas of the body. Blood work will look for tumor markers that give the oncologist an indication of whether cancer has started to grow again.
The oncologist will review the results of the testing with you to discuss whether additional tests are needed.
There are several other important reasons you should not skip out on these follow-ups with the oncologist.
- If you are taking hormone therapy after other treatments are complete and you’re declared cancer-free, you may experience drug side effects. This is common for hormone therapy treatment. Talk to the oncologist about what you’re experiencing. They may be able to recommend another drug or a different dose depending on how you’re feeling. Learn more about the side effects of breast cancer hormone therapy.
- Even if you’re not taking hormone therapy, there are some longer-lasting side effects you should talk about with the cancer care team including swelling in the arm, called lymphedema, continued brain fog, or other effects such as ongoing numbness or tingling in the hands or feet. Be open about what you’re experiencing so they can offer the best recommendations. Learn more about side effects from cancer treatments that survivors may experience.
- You can discuss other ways to lower your risk of breast cancer recurring including lifestyle changes so that you stay active and keep your body weight in a healthy range. Learn more about how to lower your risk of breast cancer.
- Discuss your mental health and how you’re feeling. If you’re struggling with fear of cancer recurrence, the oncologist may recommend some medication and counseling to help you adjust to your status as a breast cancer survivor. Learn more about how to manage fear of cancer recurrence.
Related reading: Will My Cancer Come Back?
Stay on Top of Regular Health Checks and Screenings
After cancer you’ll still need to be checked for breast cancer as well as other types of cancer so you can start treatments as soon as possible if something comes up in the screening.
You will need to go back for annual mammograms, or possibly even every six months to check for anything new developing in the breast. If you had a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy, then you'll need to start mammograms 6-12 months after radiation therapy is complete and then every year thereafter. If you had a mastectomy you will still need to have the other breast checked. If both breasts are removed (a double or bilateral mastectomy), additional mammograms should not be needed since all of the breast tissue has been removed.
Bone Density Tests
Your doctor will closely watch your bone health if you've had to take hormone medications or if you've started menopause due to treatment.
If you're taking certain hormone medications, you may be at higher risk for uterine cancer. Your doctor will schedule pelvic exams every year to closely monitor your health.
Other Types of Cancer Screening
There are other types of cancer screening including colorectal cancer, skin cancer, and even lung cancer for those with a smoking history. Don’t leave these off your calendar! It is possible to have a second type of cancer in your lifetime.
Organize Your Medical Records
You likely know by now that a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment plan leads to a lot of medical records. You may want to request a copy of your oncology medical record, as well as any other medical records for other conditions you may have. You can keep these in a binder to have as a reference for yourself or if a member of your medical team asks about a previous treatment or procedure. Keep in mind when you start treatment with any new physician they’re likely to request medical records directly from your other healthcare providers so that they can also keep your information in their own files.
Your Mental Health is Part of Your Follow-up Care
As you embrace your life as a cancer survivor, you may realize that there are many feelings involved with this journey. Concerns about the future and survivor guilt are among the most common things people work through during survivorship. In fact, many people say that the hardest time of the entire journey is immediately after treatment. During treatment, you have a feeling of “fighting” the cancer and being proactive. When all of your appointments and procedures stop, you may feel like you’re no longer in fight mode - and it can be difficult!
However, it’s important to look toward the future and confront your feelings. Fortunately, there are resources that may help. Some people find that talking to their oncologist can offer some relief, while others use meditation or spiritual beliefs to help. However, if you’re feeling anxious all the time, consider speaking with a social worker at RMCC who can guide you towards counselors or support groups for those going through similar experiences. You may find that participating in a discussion will give you a different perspective and new tools for managing the many emotions you may experience.
Learn More about a Care Plan After Breast Cancer Treatment
It's important for your health that you continue the follow-up care after your breast cancer treatment. You have unique needs, so your care plan will be customized to suit your needs and provide the best outcomes for your health.
At Rocky Mountain Breast Specialists, your healthcare team is here to talk with you about anything that affects your health and well-being. As with any questions you have during treatment, be sure to speak with your oncologist and other cancer care providers about your specific circumstances. You don’t have to wait until your appointment every few months. Reach out to your team as you notice new side effects or as other concerns arise.
Updated November 2023