Breast Cancer Recovery

A woman’s journey through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.


After a mastectomy, some women decide to wear a breast form (prosthesis). Others prefer to have breast reconstruction, either at the same time as the mastectomy or later on. Each option has its pros and cons, and what is right for one woman may not be right for another. What is important is that nearly every woman treated for breast cancer has choices. It is best to consult with a plastic surgeon before the mastectomy, even if reconstruction will be considered later on.

Various procedures are used to reconstruct the breast. Some use implants (either saline or silicone); others use tissue moved from another part of the woman’s body. Concerns about the safety of silicone breast implants have restricted their use to clinical trials approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Women interested in having silicone implants should talk with their doctor about enrolling in one of these trials. A woman’s age, body type, and the type of cancer treatment she had help determine which type of reconstruction is best. The women should ask the plastic surgeon to explain the risks and benefits of each type of reconstruction.


Rehabilitation is a very important part of breast cancer treatment. The health care team makes every effort to help women return to their normal activities as soon as possible. Recovery will be different for each woman, depending on the extent of the disease, the type of treatment, and other factors.

Exercising after surgery can help a woman regain motion and strength in her arm and shoulder. It can also reduce pain and stiffness in her neck and back. Carefully planned exercises should be started as soon as the doctor says the woman is ready, often within a day or so after surgery. Exercising begins slowly and gently and can even be done in bed. Gradually, exercising can be more active, and regular exercise becomes part of a woman’s normal routine. (Women who have a mastectomy and immediate breast reconstruction need special exercises, which the doctor or nurse will explain.)

Often, lymphedema after surgery can be prevented or reduced with certain exercises and by resting with the arm propped up on a pillow. If lymphedema occurs, the doctor may suggest exercises and other ways to deal with this problem. For example, some women with lymphedema wear an elastic sleeve or use an elastic cuff to improve lymph circulation. The doctor also may suggest other approaches, such as medication, manual lymph drainage (massage), or use of a machine that compresses the arm. The woman may be referred to a physical therapist or another specialist.

Follow-up Care

Regular follow-up exams are important after breast cancer treatment. The doctor will continue to check the woman closely to be sure that the cancer has not returned. Regular checkups usually include examinations of the breasts, chest, underarm, and neck. From time to time, the woman has a complete physical exam and a mammogram. Some women may also have additional tests.

A woman who has had cancer in one breast has an increased risk of developing cancer in her other breast. She should report any changes in the treated area or in the other breast to her doctor right away. Also, a woman who has had breast cancer should tell her doctor about other physical problems if they come up, such as pain, loss of appetite or weight, changes in menstrual cycles, unusual vaginal bleeding, or blurred vision. She should also report dizziness, coughing or hoarseness, headaches, backaches, or digestive problems that seem unusual or that don’t go away. These symptoms may be a sign that the cancer has returned, but they can also be signs of various other problems. It’s important to share your concerns with a doctor.

Living with Cancer

The diagnosis of breast cancer can change a woman’s life and the lives of those close to her. These changes can be hard to handle. It is common for the woman and her family and friends to have many different and sometimes confusing emotions.

At times, patients and their loved ones may be frightened, angry, or depressed. These are normal reactions when people face a serious health problem. Many people find it helps to share their thoughts and feelings with loved ones. Sharing can help everyone feel more at ease. It can open the way for others to show their concern and offer their support. Sometimes women who have had breast cancer are afraid that changes to their body will affect not only how they look but also how other people feel about them. They may be concerned that breast cancer and its treatment will affect their sexual relationships. Many couples find that talking about these concerns helps them find ways to express their love during and after treatment. Some seek counseling or a couples’ support group. Cancer patients may worry about holding a job, caring for their families, or starting new relationships. Worries about tests, treatments, hospital stays, and medical bills are also common. Doctors, nurses, or other members of the health care team can help calm fears and ease confusion about treatment, working, or daily activities. Also, meeting with a nurse navigator, counselor, volunteer, or member of the clergy can be helpful to patients who want to talk about their feelings or discuss their concerns about the future or about personal relationships. Please visit our Cancer Support Services web page for resources available in our valley.

What the Future Holds

Researchers continue to look for better ways to detect and treat breast cancer, and the chances of survival keep improving. Still, it is natural for patients to be concerned about their future. Sometimes patients use statistics they have heard to try to figure out their own chances of being cured. It is important to remember, however, that statistics reflect the experience of large groups of patients, not individuals. Statistics can’t be used to predict what will happen to a particular woman because no two patients are alike. The doctor who takes care of the patient and knows her medical history is in the best position to talk with her about the probable outcome or course of her disease (prognosis). Women should feel free to ask the doctor about their prognosis, but they should keep in mind that not even the doctor knows exactly what will happen.

For in-depth web sites specific to breast cancer please visit our Internet Education Resources.