6 Tips to Support a Loved One After Breast Cancer Recovery

Very helpful information…Once a cancer patient is in recovery most people think that the worst is over, and it is as far as treatments and surgeries are concerned. But recovery involves not only dealing with and healing from the physical effects, but the mental effects as well. As the first sentence of this article states, “Even if your person appears strong on the outside, understand that their mind and body are still recovering from a trauma.”  Breast cancer and what a patient has to endure to survive it, is indeed a trauma, so it is very important that their support system is there for them more than ever when moving into the recovery phase.

Recovery from cancer is not easy, it takes time to navigate through all of the experiences and emotions that come up during what seems like endless chemotherapy and radiation treatments, blood draws, scans and surgeries. Coming to terms with the damage that everything I have been through has done to my body and mind is overwhelming at times. Every time I look in the mirror it is impossible to ignore my slowly growing hair, the scars on my breasts and the discolored skin under my left arm, from radiation treatments. I know that as time passes my hair will grow back and the scars and discoloration will fade, and maybe as I see those changes then I will feel like I am moving through my recovery instead of feeling like I do now, impatient and stuck.

I have to say that with Covid-19 limiting socialization and disrupting life as we know it, there is a stress that normally wouldn’t be an issue. I would be working on getting back to a normal life, life before breast cancer, and I am, but I am also dealing with the isolation and depression that the virus has brought to most of us at one time or another in the last few months. Normally, I would still be working at my job, and not laid off, which really helps keep me focused in all aspects of my life. I would also be making plans to spend much needed time with friends and family as I miss them terribly and being around them would help my recovery in so many ways. So in the meantime as I wait to find out when I will be going back to work and we finally get to a time when it is safe to get together again with those that we love; I am doing what I can each day to get through these uncertain times as best as I can.

Medically reviewed by Krystal Cascetta, MD — Written by Theodora Blanchfield on July 6, 2020

Even if your person appears strong on the outside, understand that their mind and body are still recovering from a trauma.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you may remember what it felt like immediately after your loss: friends checking in on you, bringing you food, and generally showing up for you. But as weeks fade into months and months into years, those check ins drop off — or disappear altogether.

This feeling is all too familiar to some breast cancer survivors who may suddenly feel alone as they struggle to adjust to their new normal.

Do you want to be there for your friend but have no idea where to start? We talked to mental health experts who work with cancer survivors to get the scoop on how you can continue to show up.

1. Respect their trauma and grief

“Loved ones should understand that a great deal of loss has occurred for the survivor,” says Renee Exelbert, PhD, CFT, a psycho-oncologist and breast cancer survivor.

This includes loss of safety in their body, loss of safety in the world, and sometimes, the loss of physical body parts, or the loss of prior functioning, she explains.

With that loss comes relearning how to relate in the world.

Even if your person appears strong on the outside, “understand that their mind and body are still recovering from a trauma,” says Gabriela Gutierrez, LMFT, clinical oncology therapist at Loma Linda University Cancer Center.

The physical loss associated with breast cancer can lead to a kind of identity rebuilding, she says.

“Women are learning how to still see themselves as women even after their breasts have been altered or removed all together,” Gutierrez says.

2. Understand fear of recurrence

You may be wondering why your friend isn’t being more celebratory. After all, they just got a clean bill of health and survived cancer.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, up to 50 percent of breast cancer survivors worry their cancer will come back.

“This fear of recurrence is a very common phenomenon that patients face as their bodies learn how to adjust back into the ‘normal world’ and as their bodies process the physical and emotional trauma they just endured.”

3. Ask what their needs are

It may be tempting to want to jump in and try to “fix” things or to try to take the burden off of them, but now is the time for your loved one to tell you what they need.

Because their process was so emotionally grueling, there are all kinds of things that may be innocuous to you but a trigger to them, such as a food they couldn’t eat while they were sick.

“Careful listening will demonstrate the desire to help the survivor feel connected to and understood,” says Exelbert. “Knowing that someone wants to help you is extremely meaningful.”

“But if they’re feeling stuck knowing what they need, you might want to offer to help them get back on track with exercise or other forms of self-care,” she says.

4. Continue showing up

More than anything, your person just needs to know that you’ll continue to be there for them.

“Remind them to be patient with themselves, and to have compassion for themselves,” says Gutierrez. “Remind them it is OK to bring up hard conversations with you, so long as you feel like you are a safe person to do so with.”

They may be afraid to bring up these heavy emotions with you, and they need to know they’re not a burden to you.

5. Understand their priorities may have shifted

You’ve been running with your friend for 10 years, and now that she’s healthy again you’re wondering why she’s not interested in running.

When someone has gone through a traumatic experience like an illness, perspectives and priorities will shift. Understand that it’s not personal.

“Loved ones need to be aware that the survivor may not place the same value or importance on previously shared values, relationships, or stressors,” says Exelbert. “What was at one time significant to the survivor, may no longer carry relevance at all.”

6. Take care of yourself

How can you take care of someone else if you’re not taking care of yourself?

“Many caregivers feel they do not deserve a voice as they were not the patient, but cancer is a relational illness, and your experience matters as well,” says Gutierrez.

You were also part of the emotional cancer journey, and your feelings are valid, too.

If processing your own grief and trauma around the experience is too much for you, consider finding a therapist to help you work through it.

Anastrozole Check-up with My Oncologists PA

Today I had a check-up with the PA at my oncologists office to see how I am doing on Anastrozole. I have been taking it for about 5 1/2 months and I have been doing well. I was having problems with dizziness in the beginning so I changed the time of day that I take it from right before bedtime to when I wake up in the morning. I haven’t had a dizzy spell in a few weeks so it seems that my body has adjusted well.

First we went over my labs from the blood that they drew today. My white blood cell count is finally in the normal range, on the low end, but that was good to see as it means that my immune system is getting back to normal. My red blood cell count is still out of range, just a little low, so that goes along with me still fighting fatigue. I had one other value that was high but she said that it indicates that I have allergies to which I said “I don’t have allergies.” She laughed and said that as far as I know I don’t have allergies but I could be developing them….I hope not.

For the first time ever, she actually mentioned my weight but in a good way. She was happy to see that I have lost weight since the end of chemo, which was at the beginning of October last year, 27 lbs lost in total so far. She said that she knew it upset me to gain so much weight during chemo but she said that while going through chemo it is good to gain some weight because my body needed me to eat well. We agreed that my gaining weight helped me get through chemo as well as I did. She was also happy that I have been losing weight while taking Anastrozole because most women complain that they gain weight while  on it, which for me will be 10 years, so I will keep doing what I have been doing to get to my goal weight.

She also asked me how everything went with the second part of my reconstruction surgery that I had 11 weeks ago today. She was happy that my surgeon was able to get me on his schedule so quickly before my medical insurance ran out due to being laid off. She reminded me that it has only been 11 weeks since that surgery and since I have had so much surgery in the last year, it will still take some time for my body to recover from all of the trauma I have been through.

I asked her when the 5 year count starts as it is the main focus now that I am done with my treatments and surgeries. She said that in their office they start the count from when I completed all of my treatments, both chemotherapy and radiation, which was this year at the end of January. I then asked what the next steps are in their care for me as a cancer patient. I will continue to have check-ups every 3 months for the first 2 years after completing treatments, then every 6 months until I get to 5 years after treatments and after 5 years she said that most patients go back to seeing their regular doctor once a year. My chances of recurrence are at their highest until I get to 2 years, then it will drop a bit until I get to 5 years and then it will drop substantially after 5 years without recurrence.

We also talked about my next mammogram which is coming up in August. I am nervous about it and she assured me that especially with this being the first imaging done in over a year, it is completely normal for me to be worrying and nervous. I told her that am paranoid about the cancer coming back so I am checking my breasts often for anything that feels abnormal. But, I also told her that I am well aware that I have been through the maximum treatments for my type of cancer, having had both chemotherapy and radiation, plus having an excellent surgeon who removed all of the cancer; so keep reminding myself that there should not be anything visible in my mammogram.

So all in all I am doing well and getting healthier and stronger as I get further away from having ended chemotherapy, radiation and 4 surgeries. Here’s to another 3 months of continuing to improve! 🙂

Breast Cancer Glossary: 41 Terms You Should Know

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer it was unimaginably overwhelming in so many ways. My head was spinning with questions and fears and like many newly diagnosed patients, I felt like I needed to quickly learn a new language. Little by little I began to understand my diagnosis and what it meant for me as a breast cancer patient. Now, 16 months later, I have come across all of these terms either through my own experiences, discussions with my doctors or by reading the endless sources of information that I have discovered along the way. In the beginning of my journey it would have been so helpful to have all of the information below in one place for me to reference. I hope by sharing this article I am able to help answer some of the questions you might have as a breast cancer patient or a caregiver to a breast cancer patient.

At the bottom of this article, Monica suggests writing your cancer story basics using this guide. I am finding that quite often people will ask me for this information whether it is in a new forum that I have joined or during a conversation I am having with someone new. I have included my cancer story basics here in this blog post and on my “About Me” page.

My Cancer Story Basics: I was Dx at age 51 w/ ER/PR+, HER2-, IDC. I have had ACT, Rads, and I am on a 10 yr plan w/ HT, Anastrozole. My cancerversary is the date of Dx on February 25th, 2019. I have had a partial mastectomy, port-a-cath insertion, reconstruction w/reduction mammoplasty and insertion of breast prosthesis following reconstruction.

The author of this article, Monica Haro, is the community guide for the breast cancer support app BC Healthline. This particular app has been an amazing source of support for me both while I was in the middle of fighting breast cancer and also now that I am learning to live life as a survivor.

Medically reviewed by Krystal Cascetta, MD — Written by Monica Haro on July 6, 2020

Utterly overwhelmed is how I felt when I faced the uncertainty and devastation of my breast cancer diagnosis 5 years ago.

I dove into online communities to connect, observe, research, and be heard. When I did, I was lost on some of the language. There were so many terms, acronyms, and abbreviations to learn.

Some things that now seem obvious to understand weren’t while dealing with a brain processing the new trauma of my cancer diagnosis.

If you’re wondering what in the world a red devil, foob, expander, and ooph is, I’ve got you.

16 Months in Pictures

Mood: Amazed 😌

As I was looking through my pictures the other day I noticed that I have a picture of myself, taken in most months from when I was diagnosed with breast cancer up to the present time. So I decided to make a collection showing how I looked before breast cancer {the first picture} all the way up to how I look now {the last picture}. You can clearly see when the chemotherapy treatments really started to effect how I looked; the loss of my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, my skin getting dryer and my fine lines showing more.

It’s a given that the last 16 months have been hard on me both mentally and physically.  But, nothing tore me down and damaged me more than the chemotherapy treatments did. Chemotherapy took a part of me that I will never get back. When the chemotherapy treatments were over I realized how much the drugs and the stress of everything I had been through up to that point had aged me, a lot. Looking back through my pictures it’s easy to see how much my face has aged and it breaks my heart. I am doing what I can to undo the damage but it has not been an easy process.

Cure Magazine

Early on in my breast cancer journey I heard about a free magazine for cancer patients, survivors and caregivers called “cure.” I received my first issue around the time I had my 2nd chemo treatment in early June and I found this magazine to be so helpful in understanding more about cancer. Today I received this issue and I wish I had this early on….there is some great information in this issue for newly diagnosed cancer patients.

Please don’t get me wrong, all three of my doctors are amazing and have always taken the time to listen to me and answer all of my questions, but sometimes extra information can be helpful as well. I try not to flood myself with too much information as it can be depressing, confusing and it can make everything even more overwhelming than it already is.

Free Subscription for cure magazine

Free bulk subscriptions are available for physicians, cancer centers and other organizations.

Reality of Chemotherapy

Mood: Sad 😫

I know I have written about the side effects I experienced while going through chemotherapy treatments and the after effects, so I won’t go into the details about all of that again. You can read that entry here if you haven’t read it.

This is a hard entry for me to write, to show you a part of me that breast cancer and chemotherapy have taken from me. Anyone that knows me well, knows that I take pride in my appearance. I knew from the beginning that I would lose my hair, so I bought a few wigs early on in my journey and I promised myself that I would not go to a doctor’s appointment or out in public without a wig and at least some makeup on. I didn’t want people seeing me and feeling sorry for me, and I still don’t.

I have an update about my two big toe nails….I had to cut them both almost completely off and quite honestly, I cried…this newest development is devastating to me!

My sad toes, with medication applied!

This is yet one more part of me that I have lost to breast cancer and chemotherapy. First it was my beautiful long blonde hair, then my eyebrows and eyelashes, then the rest of the hair on my body, yes, all of it, then it damaged my finger nails and now, losing my toenails. Luckily, it looks like my nail beds were growing under my damaged toenails, my toenails had almost completely lifted away from my nail beds, so my toenails should grow back healthy and normal, but it will take time. My hair, eyebrows and eyelashes are growing back now, but slowly. I will eventually take a picture of what my hair looks like now and update you. Currently I am waiting for it to fill in a bit better as I have a big patch in the front that is not growing at the same rate as the rest of my hair and I have noticed that my eyebrow on the same side is behind in its growth as well…no clue as to why.

So at a time when I have already been feeling ugly and less than feminine, losing my toenails and worrying about what they will look like by my trip in May, has not been helpful. I know that the way I am feeling about how I look will eventually pass as my body continues to fight to get me back to good health.