Thanks to regular screenings and new treatments, more women are beating breast cancer today than ever before. Although about one in eight American women will be diagnosed with this illness in her lifetime, if the disease is caught in its early stages, almost 98 percent of those diagnosed will be alive five years later, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
If you've just completed treatment for breast cancer, you're probably eager to put that phase of your life behind you. At the same time, you may have concerns about the best way to stay well during the years ahead. Working with your health care provider to get ongoing care and make healthy lifestyle choices is an excellent place to start.
Women who have had breast cancer are three to four times more likely to develop a new tumor in either breast. There's also a chance that the cancer could come back in the same breast or spread elsewhere. That's why follow-up care is so crucial.
Now that your treatment is over, you may be tempted to stop going to the doctor for a while. But, it's more important than ever to have regular checkups. They allow your health care provider to monitor your recovery, which may include addressing any side effects of therapies you received. He or she also can check for new tumors or recurrences. For example, your provider may feel around your breasts, chest, neck, and armpits for unusual lumps. If cancer is detected early, it's usually more treatable.
Your health care provider will probably start with checkups every four to six months. As time passes, exams tend to be less frequent. And, after five years, many women see their providers just once a year. Whatever the schedule, the most important thing is to keep all your appointments.
You should also get regular mammograms. Because the risk for breast cancer is higher in women who have already had it, screening is especially critical after treatment ends.
"A mammogram is the one test that really can make a difference--as long as women have it regularly," says Christy Russell, M.D., spokesperson for the breast cancer advisory group of the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Mammography is an important tool for detecting breast cancer early on, when it's easiest to treat. But the benefits and limitations of mammography vary based on factors like age and personal risk. Experts have different recommendations for mammography. Currently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening every two years for women ages 50 to 74. The ACS recommends yearly screening for all women ages 40 and older. Women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors before making a decision about when to start getting mammograms or how often they should get them.
If you have been prescribed medication, take it as prescribed. Estrogen promotes the growth of many types of breast cancer. To control the effects of this hormone, some women use medications, such as tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, for several years after completing their initial treatment. Your health care provider can tell you whether medicines may be appropriate for you--and, if so, whether certain tests also are recommended. For example, tamoxifen raises the risk for uterine cancer. Women using this medication usually have yearly pelvic exams.
A healthy lifestyle also may help lower the risk of a new or recurrent breast cancer, the National Cancer Institute says. Your health care provider may offer these recommendations:
Avoid tobacco. If you smoke, ask your provider about quit aids, such as the nicotine patch or nicotine gum.
Choose a healthy diet. "There are no specific dietary recommendations after treatment--except to follow an eating plan that helps you maintain a healthy weight," says Dr. Russell. If your doctor advises you to lose extra pounds, eating smaller portions and limiting sugar and fat may help. For overall health, the ACS recommends that you have at least five servings of vegetables and fruits every day; choose whole grains; cut back on red meat; and limit alcohol.
Exercise regularly. "To reduce your risk of new cancers or of cancer coming back, it's essential to be active," says Dr. Russell. Exercise may help you avoid extra pounds. The ACS recommends getting 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity on five or more days a week. Before you begin, ask your doctor which exercises may be appropriate for you.
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