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Coping with breast cancer treatment and post-treatment syndrome

 No matter how reassuring being declared cancer free is, survivors still struggle with fears of “if life will truly go back to normal” (Shutterstock)

If you are a breast cancer patient/survivor, or you are attending to one, you are well aware of one’s desire to be declared cancer free.

No matter how reassuring this declaration is, survivors still struggle with fears of “if life will truly go back to normal”.

Impact of mental health

Breast cancer and its intensive treatment may elicit a range of emotions such as shock, wondering “why me?” and disbelief especially if one has been fairly well all their life.

You may find yourself unsure of how the future will be and sad that your life will have to make a drastic change.

Others may be emotionally numb, even if at the back of their mind, they are determined to conquer the disease.

There is no right or wrong way to accept the diagnosis news. If you feel isolated with dampened mood, depressed and having some loss of identity:

· Talk to your doctor about how you feel

· Engage with survivors in support groups

· Talk to your friends and family

Mental health experts advise that the sooner one confronts the physical changes of breast cancer treatment with support, the faster the confidence restoration will be.

Some triggers like the anniversary of your diagnosis or news of a famous person having breast cancer may evoke feelings that you may rather want to forget. However, the courage to get used to it takes time in some individuals.

Sexuality and intimacy

It is a fact that breasts play a significant part in sexuality for women. Depending on the extent of treatment, sexuality can be affected by surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer.

It is not unusual for breast cancer survivors to feel out of touch where intimacy and sexual relations are concerned.

How breast cancer treatment will affect you sexually, whether physically or emotionally, may be unique to you; but there are general side effects that are common among survivors.

Body changes, scars after surgery and hair loss are outward signs of a battle with cancer. Some survivors narrate of feeling incomplete, unfeminine or unattractive after mastectomy.

Such emotions lower their confidence and self-esteem and bring about the fear that their partners may feel quite disconnected with them. Some women experience vaginal dryness, pain and low libido as side effects of treatment induced early menopause.

Other survivors opt for reconstruction procedures and wearing prostheses to restore their appearance after surgery.

It is however important to note that reconstruction does not bring back the sensation of the breast as you would experience with the natural one.

Fear of recurrence

Information from the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi, indicates that only about five to 10 per cent of women with stage 1 or 2 breast cancer have a recurrence in the same breast, chest wall or lymph nodes after initial treatment.

Breast cancer treatment takes time. It involves intentionally doing something day by day to beat it. After successful treatment, you may find yourself with more time to worry about when the other shoe is likely to fall.

In addition, a survivor may feel pressured to feel and behave like life is back to normal because they are “cancer free”.

Although breast cancer survivors are advised to seek regular checkups even after successful treatment, it is not uncommon to find a breast cancer survivor rushing to the doctor at the slightest unrelated symptom such as headache or nausea or legitimate signs such as pain or a lump fearing that the cancer has come back. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Having babies after cancer treatment

Thanks to advances in medicine and healthcare, women can preserve their eggs to postpone child bearing until after cancer treatment is achieved.

According to Fertility Point Kenya, chemotherapy and radiation therapy may affect reproductive health by damaging the ovaries.

Thankfully, modern medicine has significantly reduced mortality due to breast cancer, allowing survivors to become parents after successful treatment. This has given a ray of hope for women who are diagnosed with cancer at a relatively young age.

Increasing research continues to confirm that pregnancy does not elevate cancer recurrence after successful treatment. This is according to the American Cancer Society.

Additionally, there is no proof yet that links any direct effect on babies of women with a history of breast cancer.

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