Going through treatment for breast cancer is no easy feat. We won’t tell you we know how you feel. But we can help guide you through this difficult chapter in your life by providing you with resources and support, based on your particular needs as a young woman going through cancer treatment.
One size does not fit all. Treatment for breast cancer is moving towards personalized medicine that takes into account an individual’s unique biological features.
Make an informed decision. How breast cancer is treated depends on the type of cancer you have and other variables specific to you.Your doctor will discuss with you your treatment options and their various side effects. Understand them and make informed choices by asking questions, voicing your concerns and weighing the benefits against the risks.
Be sure to involve your key support people in the discussion. They often see and hear things you don’t.Playing an active role in your breast cancer care and including your inner circle of support can be your greatest source of empowerment throughout your treatment.
Your treatment options
There are two main types of treatment:
- Local (surgery and radiation)
- Systemic (chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy)
Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments because they treat a small area of the body.
- Surgery to remove the cancerous tissue is the most common form of treatment. There are two types of surgery: lumpectomy and mastectomy. Often surgery is used along with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy or targeted therapy.
- Lumpectomy involves the surgical removal of the cancerous tumour in the breast and some surrounding normal tissue. Usually underarm lymph nodes or a sample of nodes are also removed. Radiation is almost always used to decrease the chance of recurrence.
- Mastectomy involves surgical removal of the entire breast containing the breast cancer. Underarm lymph nodes or a sample of nodes are also removed.
- Radiation Therapy uses high-energy X-rays to destroy any cancer cells that may remain in the breast after surgery. This reduces the chance of recurrence.
Chemotherapy, hormone therapy and targeted therapy are systemic because they target your whole body. They are used to get rid of or disable cancer cells that may have spread from the breast to other areas of the body.
- Chemotherapy uses drugs to stop the growth and spread of cancer cells throughout your body. Its aim is to lower the risk of secondary cancer. It can be given before (neo-adjuvant) or after (adjuvant) surgery.
- Hormone Therapy uses drugs to block the production of estrogen and other female hormones that promote the growth of certain kinds of cancer cells after surgery. It typically involves taking a drug, such as tamoxifen, over the course of several years.
- Targeted Therapy is a recent treatment approach that targets the genes and proteins in the cancer cells in an effort to stop their growth and spread. When certain cells are blocked, the cancer cannot grow. Herceptin (trastuzumab) is the an example of targeted treatment for early breast cancer. It is most commonly used in women with HER2+ breast cancer.
GETTING THROUGH TREATMENT
Getting through chemotherapy can be a particularly challenging aspect of cancer treatment. We’ve come up with a couple handy resources to help you out.
Coping with Chemo
As part of our LiveLaughLearn video series, Stephanie Gilman shared her top tips for getting through chemo treatments.
- Comfy Chemo Outfit – Wear something comfy and cozy for your long days at the hospital. Add a splash of colour or fun accessory for a little lift.
- Numb Your Port – If you’re having a lot of treatments, or have bad veins, you will likely get a port to receive your chemo infusions. About 90 minutes to 2 hours before your treatment numb the port with a numbing cream like EMLA cream.
- Minty Fresh – When you have a port, it needs to be flushed before you can start your treatment (and also for blood draws). This causes a weird taste to occur in your mouth.
- Cool Your Mouth – Most chemo wards should have popsicles in the freezer, or at the very least, some ice cubes. Sucking on something icy while receiving your chemo is thought to reduce the likelihood of developing nasty mouth sores.
Watch the video below and read the accompanying blog post to get the inside scoop.
Nobody chooses chemo for its side effects, and it’s no wonder. Fatigue, nausea, sensitivity to smells and mouth sores, to name just a few, are anything but welcome in a woman’s life. Brigitte Davlut knew this firsthand, which is why she created Chemo Care, a product guide to easing the side effects of chemotherapy. Inspired by Brigitte’s original guide, we’re making our own checklist of items you might want to gather to help you get through chemo. We hope it will help you find comfort during this step of your treatment. Stay tuned!
Although some people find radiation an easier go than chemotherapy, it’s still no walk in the park. We’ve come up with a few tips as you navigate your way through this step. Don’t forget to consult with your radiation oncologist before trying any new products or remedies.
Tips for getting through radiation:
- Moisturize your skin after each treatment with a water-based moisturizer. Check with your radiation oncologist to see if there is a specific type or brand of moisturizer they prefer you use. Stick to something mild and fragrance-free.
- After a few weeks, you may develop some itching. If the itching is fairly mild, try aloe vera or an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. If the itching worsens, talk to your doctor who should be able to prescribe something more effective.
- If possible, go braless whenever you can to prevent irritation around the breast area. It’s also a good idea to stick to loose clothes and t-shirts. You might have to sacrifice fashion for comfort for a bit – but you’ll be glad you did.
- After radiation, your radiated skin will be more sensitive to the sun. Try to avoid spending too much time in direct sunlight. If you are outside, use sunblock. You can also purchase a rash guard/cover-up to wear when you go swimming, which will give you full coverage protection.
SIDE EFFECTS OF TREATMENT
Treatment side effects, and the fear of them, can be the source of major physical and emotional stress for young women with breast cancer.
Because they vary in intensity with each person, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re facing when you’re weighing your treatment options. Worst possible scenarios (we all go there) and fear of the unknown can make us crazy with worry, but most treatment side effects can be controlled and quite often go away when your treatment ends.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about the possible side effects of your specific treatment. Knowing more can help you feel in control of what’s happening to your body.
In addition to the common side effects of cancer treatment, there are some potential side effects that might affect you differently as a young woman with breast cancer.
The fertility effect
Chemotherapy can have temporary or permanent effects on a pre-menopausal woman’s fertility. These effects vary from drug to drug and person to person. You may have other menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, during treatment. But all of these effects may well end when your treatment ends, returning you to a normal menstrual cycle and fertility. In some cases, you may also be able to preserve your fertility before beginning treatment.
If you are concerned about the potential risk of loss of your fertility, talk to your doctor about what can be done to help and ask for a referral to a fertility specialist who has experience with cancer patients.
Changes to your body
Treatment for breast cancer can cause changes to your body and appearance and for a young woman, we know this side effect can be particularly challenging. Whether you’re left with a small scar or you’ve had an entire breast removed, your feelings about it are unique to you and how you choose to proceed is a decision you make for yourself.
Many women who have undergone mastectomies and even lumpectomies opt for breast reconstruction. If you’re looking for more information on breast reconstruction, check out Willow’s site to learn more about your options and what to expect. We also know that current wait-times for young women who opt for reconstruction are longer than they should be. Click here to find out what we’re doing about it and how you can help.
Other women may prefer to wear a breast prosthesis or go flat. If you decide to choose no reconstruction, you may be interested in Breastcancer.org’s helpful article about making this decision and how to overcome certain issues that might pop up.
Trying to figure out how to shop for a bathing suit after a mastectomy? Check out Stacey Oree’s LiveLaughLearn video with helpful tips:
Another unfortunate side effect of many types of chemotherapy is hair loss, which can include the loss of brows and lashes. This side effect can be one of the hardest to cope with for young women, as the loss of hair can be the first concrete sign that you have a serious illness, and may signal to others that you have cancer. Although this can be a challenging time, hair loss is almost always temporary. And in the meantime, you can try out different options—wigs, headscarves, accessories, hats—and see what works, and what makes you feel good. If you’ve always wanted to see what life would be like as a blonde, this might be the perfect opportunity! Many women also choose to embrace the bald, and go out ‘naked.’ There is no right or wrong way to deal with hair loss, so go with whatever option feels right.
Changes in Sexual Health
You may be required to take certain drugs for breast cancer treatment that can cause vaginal dryness or other menopausal symptoms. Not so fun, right? Many young women may be concerned about how this will affect their sex lives and intimacy with their partners. There are various steps you can take and products you can use to help with this side effect, but remember to always check with your doctor first.
Many cancer centres also now offer support for dealing with sexual changes due to cancer treatment. If you’d like to speak to a professional about what you’re feeling and learn ways to cope, don’t sit in silence – ask your doctor for a referral.