Living with breast cancer and moving forward

Dr Richard Simcock
Dr Richard Simcock

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, but if you have recently been diagnosed you may be worried about the side effects of treatment.

Dr Richard Simcock, Oncology consultant at The Montefiore Hospital in Hove, explains the huge advancements which have been made to help people living with and beyond breast cancer.

“Happily, treatment for breast cancer is getting better all the time. More than 80 per cent of patients can expect to be free of disease 10 years later, but we recognise patients have side effects from treatment and may have to live with those beyond cancer. Side-effects can be emotional or physical.

Nausea and hair loss are feared side effects of chemotherapy but modern anti-sickness drugs work exceptionally well, and ‘cold capping’ technologies allow many women to keep their hair.

In reality, the most common side effect we see is fatigue, followed by sleep disturbance.

All patients are given a holistic needs assessment, designed by Macmillan Cancer Support, to identify problems and plan interventions. Patients are assigned a breast cancer specialist nurse to advise and guide throughout treatment. It’s important to us that patients tell the oncology team if they are suffering physical side effects from chemotherapy so the treatment can be adjusted for that individual.

After successful treatment, patients will have annual mammograms and, if they have any concerns, they will have a direct route back to the cancer services for assessment and reassurance.

Having cancer treatment may change the way you look at the world, but our aim is for people to be cancer free and able to pick up their lives as near normal as possible afterwards.”

Living with and beyond breast cancer: Fatigue - this is the most universal problem. Patients often think they should ‘take it easy’, but research shows that `rest is not best’. Exercise helps to lessen fatigue and improve mood.

Look to maintain some exercise throughout treatment.. There are tailored exercise schemes including Albion in the Community’s Brighter Outlook which offers free, personalised physical activity for people living with and beyond cancer in Brighton and Hove.

Sleep disturbance - menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and sleep disturbance are common after treatment. Prescription medication can help, but so can acupuncture. Clinical studies have shown acupuncture can also help with joint stiffness and nausea.

Psychological support - Your oncology team can provide emotional support and a listening ear but joining a peer support group is often helpful. Sharing a `lived’ experience can be very powerful.

After treatment, a `Moving Forward’ course is available to patients to help them understand their `new normal’ after breast cancer. There are many other self-referral services available through Macmillan Cancer Support including counselling, financial advice and even cookery classes.

Use the 24-hour on call service if necessary - If you have any concerns during treatment whether it is 3pm or 3am, seeking help urgently now may prevent problems further on.

Dr Richard Simcock is an oncology consultant at The Montefiore Hospital, Montefiore Road, Hove, with a clinical interest in survivorship and rehabilitation. The Montefiore was recently awarded the Macmillan Quality Environment Mark (MQEM) for its dedicated oncology unit which provides care for people living with cancer. Visit www.themontefiorehospital.co.uk or phone 01273 828 148.