Living with Breast Cancer

Receiving a diagnosis of advanced or metastatic breast cancer dramatically changes someone’s life, and at times, the disease and its treatment may seem all-consuming. The symptoms of advanced breast cancer and side effects from treatment can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life.

Coping with symptoms and side effects

When breast cancer spreads and forms tumors in other parts of the body, the symptoms can vary depending on where the metastases occur. Treatment can help ease symptoms and may include a combination of approaches. Unfortunately, treatments used to slow or stop the growth of breast cancer can also cause unwanted side effects and create additional strain on a person’s body and emotions. Some side effects from treatment are temporary, and they go away once treatment is finished. Other side effects may be long-term or permanent. Throughout treatment for advanced breast cancer, there are ways to generally manage side effects and symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life.

Coping with the mental and emotional challenges

Living with advanced breast cancer is also emotionally challenging. At times, dealing with the disease and its treatment may seem overwhelming. Frustrations come in several forms, including physically, emotionally, and socially. There is also the fear of cancer recurring or worsening, which may cause anxiety that can affect many aspects of a person’s life. Many women living with advanced or metastatic breast cancer find it critical to have a support system, which may include family, friends, clergy, support groups (online and off), or a professional therapist.

The benefits of palliative care

Also called comfort care, supportive care, or symptom management, palliative care aims to alleviate symptoms from cancer and side effects from cancer treatment, as well as maximize the patient’s quality of life. Palliative care does not focus on curing the disease or prolonging life, which is the goal of other breast cancer treatments. However, palliative care can be used alongside other treatments and is an important part of the patient’s treatment plan.1

Nutrition and exercise to support living with advanced breast cancer

Nutrition and exercise can help support the body as it goes through treatment, keeping the body strong and resilient. Both nutrition and exercise should be tailored to meet the needs of the individual. Diets should include a variety of foods from each of the food groups to meet the body’s nutrient needs, and it may be helpful to consult with a nutritionist or registered dietician who is skilled in working with people who have cancer.

Exercise has been shown to help improve the body’s functions and improve quality of life during treatment for cancer.2 However, each individual should check with their doctor to understand any exercise restrictions that might be appropriate for their case.

Coping with late-stage cancer

In some cases, treatment may stop working and all appropriate and necessary treatment options may have already been tried. Some patients themselves may also decide to stop treatment when they feel the side effects of treatments are no longer worth the impact on the quality of their life. At these times, the focus of treatment shifts from trying to treat the breast cancer to maximize the person’s quality of life. Hospice care may be of benefit, as hospice provides a team approach to help the patient with medical care, pain management, emotional support, and spiritual support.

View References
  1. Palliative care in cancer. National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/palliative-care-fact-sheet. Accessed 10/19/18.
  2. Exercising during chemotherapy for breast or colon cancer has long-term benefits. American Society of Clinical Oncology. Available at https://www.asco.org/about-asco/press-center/news-releases/exercising-during-chemotherapy-breast-or-colon-cancer-has-long. Accessed 10/30/18.