Life after breast cancer: aftermath tests mind, body and wallet

Story Image

Shadows from the past: The journey through breast cancer carries on for years after diagnosis and treatment — taking a toll on the mind, body and wallet. | FILE PHOTO

After treatment: what to watch for

Women who have been treated for breast cancer sometimes develop the following:

1. Lymphedema.

Breast cancer survivors face the
possibility of developing lymphedema,
or swelling of the arm from buildup of fluid, for the rest of their lives. Any
treatment that involves removing or
giving radiation to the axillary lymph nodes carries the risk of lymphedema.

2. Uterine cancer.

Women who are taking tamoxifen or
toremifene are at increased risk for
uterine cancer and should have annual pelvic exams. This risk is highest in women who have gone through

3. Diminished bone health.

Women who are taking an aromatase inhibitor or are pre-menopausal and
taking tamoxifen or toremifene,
especially need to monitor their bone health. A bone density test may be in order.

4. Recurrence.

If symptoms, exams, or tests suggest a recurrence, imaging tests such as an X-ray, CT scan, PET scan, MRI scan, bone scan, and/or a biopsy may be done. Your doctor may also measure levels of blood tumor markers.

The American Cancer Society

Going through the trials and tribulations of breast cancer is tough enough, but is made even rougher when having to deal with financial concerns.

“I was laid off from my job as a manager at a hospice right after my treatment,” said Gail Briggs, 51, of South Holland. “I collected unemployment and started to do some healing. I explained to my radiologist that I didn’t have any more insurance and she directed me to go to the emergency room if I had any complications. She stopped seeing me.”

A 2009 synthesis of published evidence on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s website reports that the estimated lifetime per-patient cost of breast cancer in the United States ranges from $20,000 to $100,000. Continuing care accounted for the largest share of lifetime cost due to the relatively long survival of breast cancer patients.

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer death rates decreased 2.2 percent per year from 1990 to 2007, after having increased 0.4 percent per year from 1975 to 1990. The decline in breast cancer deaths has been attributed to improvements in breast cancer treatment and early detection.

Briggs volunteers for the American Cancer Society and is passionate about trying to help others from not having to go through the same thing she did.

“While in treatment, people on short-term disability are not getting the same check as when they are working,” Briggs said. “I hope to help someone afford their house note or car note while they’re going through their treatments. You’re mind and body are already down and out, so you don’t need to worry about how you’re going to pay your bills.”

Financial support is only a third of the battle, as cancer patients also need to lean on someone for physical and emotional support. Mary Maryland, Patient Nurse Navigator for the American Cancer Society at Loyola University Bernadine Cancer Center, finds herself in one of those support roles.

“Part of my responsibility is to help newly diagnosed cancer patients navigate their way through treatment,” Maryland said.

Sometimes the scariest part of the process takes place after the cancerous cells have been removed.

“To some degree, after whatever intervention has happened, there is a ‘now what?’ feeling,” Maryland said.

For Briggs, the radiation, which was helping her get better, would leave lasting effects on her body. Briggs had two procedures to remove scarring on her lungs that doctors thought may have been caused by the radiation, she said.

According to Dr. Patricia Robinson, assistant professor in the hematology and oncology division in the department of medicine at Loyola University, after diagnosis, treatment and recovery, the process comes full circle.

“Don’t let one’s diagnosis define who they are, but take it as one step in their cancer journey,” Robinson said. “When you transition from treatment to cancer survivor it loops back to prevention. Employ strategies to reduce the risk of getting any type of cancer, like colonoscopies, pap smears and dermatology.”

Briggs, who also has hypertension, underwent life changes to try to help keep her cancer away.

“I’m getting closer to that retirement age and I had to change my whole life as far as eating habits and exercise habits,” Briggs said. “I’m in a preventive mode and people need to take care of themselves. I got a physical and signed up for a boot camp course.”

No matter the preventative measures she takes, Briggs said the chance of her cancer coming back is always on her mind.

“You always have the fear that any growth or anything abnormal is always cancer,” Briggs said. “You try and avoid going to the doctor because you don’t want anymore bad news.”