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Learning to be comfortable with your body during and after breast cancer treatment is a personal journey that is different for every woman. Information and support can help you cope with these changes over time.
Along with the emotional, mental, and financial stresses that cancer and its treatment can cause, many women with breast cancer also find themselves coping with changes in their appearance as a result of their treatment.
Some changes may be temporary, such as hair loss. But even short-term changes can have a profound effect on how a woman feels about herself. A number of options are available to help women cope with hair loss, including wigs, hats, scarves, and other accessories. Alternatively, some choose to use their baldness as a way to identify themselves as breast cancer survivors.
Other changes can be permanent, like the loss of part or all of a breast (or breasts) after surgery. Some women choose to have reconstructive surgery to rebuild the breast mound, while others might choose not to. If you decide not to have breast reconstruction, you can decide whether to wear a breast form or prosthesis or not.
You may have concerns about sexuality after breast cancer. Physical changes, especially after breast surgery, can make some women less comfortable with their bodies. There may be a loss of sensation in the affected breast. Other treatments for breast cancer, such as chemotherapy and hormone therapy, can change your hormone levels and may affect your sexual interest and/or response.
Relationship issues are also important. Your partner might worry about how to express love physically and emotionally after treatment, especially after surgery. But breast cancer can be a growth experience for couples – especially when both partners take part in decision making and go to treatments.
To learn more, see Sex and the Adult Female with Cancer.
Regardless of the changes you may experience, it's important to know that there is advice and support out there to help you cope. Speaking with your doctor or other members of your health care team is often a good starting point to find it. There are also many support groups available, such as the American Cancer Society Reach To Recovery program. This program matches you with a local volunteer who has had breast cancer. Your Reach To Recovery volunteer can answer many of your questions and can give you suggestions, additional reading material, and advice. Remember that she's been there and will probably understand.
Some studies suggest that younger women tend to have more problems adjusting to the stresses of breast cancer and its treatment. It can feel socially isolating. Younger women might also be more affected by issues of sexuality or fertility (the ability to have children). Some younger women might be thinking about starting a family or having more children, and they might worry about how the cancer and its treatment might affect this. Others might have already started families and might worry about how family members might be affected. For more on this, see Pregnancy After Breast Cancer.
If you are having trouble adjusting after a breast cancer diagnosis, a counselor or a support group can often be helpful. If you aren’t sure who can help, call your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345. We can put you in touch with a group or resource that may work for you.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Henry NL, Shah PD, Haider I, et al. Chapter 88: Cancer of the breast. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier; 2020.
Jagsi R, King TA, Lehman C, et al. Chapter 79: Malignant tumors of the breast. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2019.
Ruddy KJ, Partridge AH. Approach to the patient following treatment for breast cancer. UpToDate. 2021. Accessed at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/approach-to-the-patient-following-treatment-for-breast-cancer on October 21, 2021.
Last Revised: January 5, 2022
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