AARP Eye Center
When Patti Tucker finished her breast cancer treatment four years ago, she assumed that, for the most part, her life would resume as normal.
It wasn't quite so easy.
"I had to get used to my body all over again,” Tucker, who's 57, recalls. This included coping with neuropathy, or nerve damage in her fingertips that left her hands numb and tingling, as well as the occasional leg pain and weakness that suddenly cropped up whenever she went on a long run. “Almost five years out, my body is still not the body I had for so many years,” says Tucker, a writer who lives in San Antonio. “And I'm slowly realizing that that body will never come back."
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There are more than 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. This includes women going through treatment as well as those who completed theirs years ago. But the roller coaster of emotions that accompanies a breast cancer diagnosis doesn't automatically stop once you've completed chemotherapy. “The survivorship phase is often even a tougher time because women now have to cope with worries about a recurrence, as well as the aftereffects of treatment,” explains Kathleen Ashton, a clinical health psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Breast Center. “These struggles may be invisible to others, but they're very, very real.”
About 80 percent of women with breast cancer end up struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the first year post-diagnosis, according to a 2016 study. PTSD can linger for years: Another 2018 study, published in the journal Cancer, found that about 6 percent of women still struggle with the disorder's physical and mental symptoms four years later. “They may also still have fatigue, pain, sleep problems that affect their quality of life that they're grappling with,” Ashton adds. “But it's hard for their family and friends to understand why they're not happy that their cancer is ‘gone.'"
To top it off, survivors may feel like no one's looking after them, as their team of cancer specialists are now focused on new patients, and their primary care doctors may not have the time and experience to handle a former cancer patient's often-complex physical and emotional needs, adds Mary Dev, a social worker at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Here's a look at four common posttreatment realities in the lives of breast cancer survivors, along with strategies for coping with them.