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Treating Breast Cancer Early

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PHYSICIAN VOICES
5 Oncologist Tips for People with Early Breast Cancer

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As an oncologist specializing in breast cancer, it’s important to me to support my patients in any way I can, from educating them about the details of their cancer, to working with them to choose the right treatment, to sharing advice on how to prioritize wellness during the treatment process. Here’s what I want my patients with early breast cancer to know.

1. Find a doctor you trust

Connecting with the right oncologist is crucial. You want to find someone who stays up to date with the research, because the treatment landscape for early breast cancer is changing all the time. Find an oncologist who spends most of their day treating breast cancer, not someone who focuses on a variety of different cancers.

Perhaps most importantly, find a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with so you receive the most effective, appropriate treatment and so your quality of life can be as high as possible. If the first oncologist you see doesn’t seem like the right fit, don’t be afraid to find someone else who does.

2. Be upfront and honest about your experiences

I encourage my patients to be really vocal about what their side effects are like during treatment, especially when they are taking anti-estrogen medications for early breast cancer. These medications, while very effective, can have serious side effects, so we want to know any symptoms right away. And it’s not just about avoiding serious problems; treatment side effects can significantly impact your quality of life.

I want patients to know they don’t necessarily have to accept side effects like vaginal dryness, fatigue, constipation, or something else. We can make tweaks to your treatment plan, we can add other medications to improve side effects, or I can recommend lifestyle changes to help. You don’t have to grin and bear it.

3. Accept help

When you’re in the process of treating breast cancer, it is crucial to ask for – and accept – help. A lot of my patients are mothers who feel like they have to carry everything on their shoulders, even as they treat their breast cancer. I emphasize as much as possible to my patients that it’s totally okay to not be the person who does everything. This is a time to focus on your own needs, to take a step back and prioritize yourself.

Of course, many women want to keep their daily routines and their family dynamics the same to have a sense of normalcy, and everyone wants to be present for their kids and their spouses. However, it’s important to acknowledge that you’ve got an extra factor in the mix now, and it’s okay to let others help you however they can. You don’t have to do this on your own, and it can feel gratifying to your loved ones to be able to support you – they want to help if you’ll let them.

4. Prioritize your mental health

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is very scary, and going through treatment can turn your life upside-down. Even when you’re done with active treatment and your cancer is in remission, it can also be hard for people to live with the fear of recurrence. For all these reasons, I highly recommend talking to a mental health professional throughout this experience.

Your cancer center likely has psychologists or social workers who are trained to support people in exactly your situation. They can help you tackle the many emotions that come with your diagnosis and these big life changes, and they can also help you compartmentalize and cope with the anxiety about your breast cancer returning. Sometimes, patients are hesitant to talk to a counselor or therapist because they’ve never done it before. In my opinion, there’s no reason not to do it when you’re coping with such a difficult life event as treating breast cancer.

For some people, support groups are really beneficial. Others struggle with comparing their experience to others. Many of my patients find meditation or massage really helpful. Getting enough sleep is hugely important when it comes to improving your mental health, too. And working with a psychiatrist and taking medication to help ease anxiety or depression is also a valuable tool for some. Explore different options and find what works for you. 

5. Stay active

I can’t overemphasize the importance of exercise during breast cancer treatment, especially during chemotherapy, and especially for people struggling with fatigue. The best way to treat fatigue during cancer treatment has been shown to be regular exercise. I usually recommend a goal of 30 minutes of walking, 5 days a week. Of course, it’s important to recognize when you’re tired and alternate resting with physical activity. But truly, the best way to boost your energy is exercise.

I’ll note that it’s important to investigate the cause of excessive fatigue – another reason why it’s crucial to be honest with your doctor about what you’re feeling. Sometimes, fatigue isn’t just a side effect of a cancer treatment. It can be related to depression or insomnia or something else. We need to know the reasons behind the fatigue so we can treat them accordingly and help you feel better.

Receiving a diagnosis of early breast cancer is life-changing, but I want patients to know they are not alone, and there are ways to find support and feel as well as possible during treatment.

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