What to Expect With Breast Cancer
Breast cancer is a disease where abnormal cells grow out of control in one or both breasts. Breast cancer is different for each person, depending on a person's age and type of cancer cells in the tumor.
At Kaiser Permanente medical offices, we care for our breast cancer patients using the latest medical knowledge and advanced technology. Your cancer care team will help you understand what to expect, discuss your treatment options, and provide care and support during your journey through diagnosis, treatment, and beyond.
With compassion and support, we help our breast cancer patients manage their cancer — before, during, and after treatment. Many of our breast cancer survivors go on to lead healthy, active lives long after treatment. We will support you as you transition to survivorship.
Developing a Treatment Plan
After your initial diagnosis, you'll meet with a cancer specialist — a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, or surgeon — to discuss treatment options and next steps.
Some women with breast cancer need additional tests to determine the stage of the cancer. This confirms the size of the tumor, how fast or slowly it’s growing, and whether cancer cells have spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body.
These additional tests can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. We know that waiting for the results can cause anxiety. But this step is critical in planning your treatment.
Staging helps your cancer doctor plan the right treatment for you. It can also help in finding a clinical trial that you might be able to participate in.
At Kaiser Permanente, your doctor develops your treatment plan with you, aligned with the best treatments available. We encourage you to bring a family member or friend to your appointments to take notes and help ask questions.
Some patients want to get a second opinion for more information about their diagnosis or treatment options.
Breast Cancer Treatment
Breast cancer treatment depends on the type and the stage of cancer.
At Kaiser Permanente, we keep up with the rapid changes and improvements in cancer treatment. We offer chemotherapy that’s easier to tolerate, radiation targeted to the cancer growth, and surgery that is less invasive. We review the latest research findings to make sure our treatments are the most effective.
Treatments and side effects: Some patients have only surgery and do not need any other treatment. Some have chemotherapy or radiation before surgery to shrink the tumor. Others have surgery first and then follow with chemotherapy or radiation, or both.
If you have radiation therapy or chemotherapy, sessions will probably be scheduled over a few weeks or months.
Side effects for chemotherapy and radiation may include nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, pain, and skin irritation. Risk of infection can rise as blood counts (number of red and white blood cells and platelets) temporarily drop.
Side effects depend on the treatment, including type of chemotherapy drugs and radiation dose. You won’t be sure how you’ll respond — or if you’ll have any side effects — until you begin treatment.
Some people have few or no side effects. Others might feel worse in the days or weeks right after a treatment session. And some don't feel well most of the time. You won't be sure how you'll respond until you begin treatment.
Planning ahead: Once you and your doctor have decided on a treatment plan, you can begin to prepare for how it might affect your daily life.
If your treatment plan includes surgery, you may want to take time before you get back to your regular activities. We schedule time for your recovery before other treatment begins.
Your care team will let you know what side effects are common for your type of treatment and how you can manage them. A nutritionist can help you plan foods to have on hand. You might want to get a wig, scarves, or hats if you’re likely to lose your hair during treatment.
Adjusting your priorities and schedule in advance can ease the stress before treatment begins. You may want to contact friends or family members to see if they’re available to help with rides or household needs.
While it may take a while to get your energy back after treatment, many breast cancer patients successfully return to healthy, active lives.
Your Physical Health
Sometimes other health problems arise, right after treatment or later (called late effects). These problems might affect your heart, lungs, hormones, and more. Your team at Kaiser Permanente will continue to care for your ongoing health and watch for any complications.
Lymphedema: Patients who've had surgery or radiation therapy that involved their lymph nodes can develop a condition called lymphedema. This can cause the arm or hand to swell. Lymphedema happens when the lymph nodes’ natural process of draining fluid from the tissues has been interrupted.
Lymphedema may happen slowly, even months or years after treatment. But it usually develops slowly. Many people don't notice it for months or even years after cancer treatment has ended. It's important to treat lymphedema early — call your care team if there’s any swelling in the arm or hand.
Returning to activities: Getting good follow-up care and paying attention to your physical well-being will help you get stronger. Most can soon return to the activities they enjoyed before cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Your Emotional Health
When treatment is behind you, you might feel a sense of relief. Or you might be anxious if any problems lie ahead. Keeping a positive attitude and focusing on what you appreciate and enjoy can help you feel better, both physically and emotionally.
Breast cancer support groups have helped many people share concerns and feelings with others going through a similar experience. To find groups and other support, see Resources and Support.
Ongoing Wellness Care
Once you've completed treatment, your care team will recommend a schedule of follow-up tests and ongoing visits with your doctor. Tests will likely include lab work, imaging tests, and mammograms.
If there are any signs of cancer again, your care team can diagnose and treat it early. Keeping these follow-up tests and appointments supports your recovery and survivorship.
Being a Survivor
Many people who have had breast cancer describe themselves as survivors. You've gone through a journey of tests, diagnosis, and treatment, handled side effects, and possibly made major lifestyle changes. Through all of that you've continued to manage life and move forward.
You may want to honor the courage in yourself, the connection you make to others, and your ability to survive the challenges you've faced with cancer. We honor your journey as well.