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Diagnosed with breast cancer: Now what?

6 Tips every woman should know

About six years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since my sister received the same diagnosis at age 43, and both my grandmother and mother died of metastatic breast cancer, this battle is something I was all too familiar with.
Woman receiving diagnosis

Contributed by Susan Scanlan, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations

Like many women today, I was lucky to be diagnosed early. Thanks to increased breast cancer awareness and advancements in detection, along with the endless support of my family and friends, I can now proudly say I am a survivor.

Despite the long “tradition” of breast cancer in my family, I still experienced the fear and distress that any woman would. What I needed — after the initial “pity party” — was information. It’s vital for women to understand the choices they have and know about the helpful communities that exist in the breast cancer space. So I’ve created a list of tips for any woman following diagnosis.

1

Know your options

Most women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer decide to have surgery. For those who choose this method, there are two options:

  • Lumpectomy: Surgeons aim to remove the cancer with a rim of healthy tissue around it, while conserving the breast. Most patients also receive five to seven weeks of radiation therapy shortly after lumpectomy to eliminate any cancer cells that may remain in the breast tissue.
  • Mastectomy: Surgeons remove one or both breasts, partially or completely, to remove cancerous cells. Additional radiation may be recommended to patients following mastectomy.
2

Become an informed patient

Find a surgeon who’s up to date on the latest treatment and technology. Did you know that lumpectomy in combination with radiation can be just as, if not more, effective than a mastectomy? Although many women opt for a mastectomy, more and more research shows that a lumpectomy is just as safe, as long as all the cancer is removed. Staying informed can help you make the best decision for your situation. Breastcancer.org is a great resource for learning about advances in breast cancer treatment, such as a newly approved device for lumpectomy that helps surgeons determine if there's cancer at the edge of the removed tissue. It’s called MarginProbe.

3

Ask questions

You’re likely to have many thoughts running through your head and may feel unable to think clearly. Your doctor will understand this. You should feel free to ask questions about any concerns you may have. Write them down and bring along a spouse, sibling or friend to your appointments, who can take notes on the conversation and help you remember it later.

4

Prepare yourself mentally

Remember that it’s normal to be nervous about your surgery. Your doctor is there to support you on your journey, so talk to him or her about your fears. You can also reach out to your nurses, or ask to be connected with a counselor. There are many support groups that will put you in touch with someone who has successfully undergone the same treatment.

5

Keep a healthy body and mind

  • Regular exercise and a healthy diet is important throughout treatment and has even been shown to reduce such common side effects as depression, weakness, fatigue and weight gain. Plus, the more you stay in shape during treatment, the quicker you’ll be able to return to the activities you enjoy afterwards.
  • Exercise is also important following treatment. In fact, breast cancer survivors who engaged in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for more than 129 minutes per week experienced decreases in percent body fat, increases in lean mass and stable bone mineral density.
6

Join the community

Find local races, events, and advocacy groups in order to get involved. It’s a great way to build relationships with women going through the same experiences. The US Department of Health and Human Services has compiled lists of resources for women. Today I am a survivor, but the road to recovery was made so much easier by following these six “lessons learned” and by relying on the support of family and friends who took the journey with me.

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