This year, more than 25,000 Canadians will receive a diagnosis of breast cancer — most of them women. Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canadian women, and about 4,900 women will die of the disease.
The diagnosis of any health problem is frightening. Breast cancer brings along the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis but for many women, the disease is also tied up in feelings about femininity, sexuality, attractiveness, and motherhood.
And nobody gets a diagnosis as simple as “breast cancer,” which means that patients have a lot to wade through. There are four main types of breast cancer: ductal carcinoma in situ, infiltrating (invasive) lobular carcinoma, infiltrating (invasive) ductal carcinoma, and inflammatory breast cancer.
Then there is lobular carcinoma in situ, which, according to BreastCancer.org is "an area (or areas) of abnormal cell growth that increases a person’s risk of developing invasive breast cancer later on in life."
Each of these types of cancer can vary by location and size of the tumour, the stage of cancer and other factors. That means that learning what you can about your specific diagnosis is key to receiving good treatment.
Here are nine things to know if you’re received a diagnosis of breast cancer, from how to handle the initial decisions about treatment to what to expect down the road.
Get the basic facts:
There are a variety of different factors that affect what your diagnosis is, what your prognosis looks like, what your treatment options are. Ask technical questions like what kind of cancer you have, if it has spread, what the treatment options are, and what your diagnosis might mean for friends and family. It’s helpful to write down the questions you want to ask, so you don’t have to worry about remembering them.
Ask all of your questions:
"Don't be afraid to ask questions and don't think that any issue you may have is silly or frivolous,” says Carolann Cole, a breast-cancer survivor living in Newfoundland and Labrador. You can’t be expected to be an expert on a diagnosis you’ve just received, and doctors don’t know what your specific concerns or areas of confusion are if you don’t share them.
Get an appointment buddy:
It can be overwhelming to go to medical appointments by yourself and remember everything you wanted to ask, or everything you are told, while also dealing with the emotions of the situation. Bring along a friend of family member who can keep a level head, remind you what you wanted to ask, and take notes so you have the information you need later on.
Share with those close to you:
You might feel like you’re protecting your loved ones by keeping them from the details of your illness, but those who care for you want to know how they can help. It’s also a matter of safety — if you are incapacitated in any way, someone needs to talk to medical professionals about the medications you’re taking and the facts of your condition. You don’t have to tell everyone everything, but it’s valuable to have people you can be open with.
Reach out for official support:
"I would suggest checking out the Cancer Society offices that are closest to your community,” Cole suggests. "It's always good to talk to someone about your concerns.” Cancer support groups can also provide emotional and practical support, either online or in person.
Feel free to focus on your physical appearance:
Women might feel that worrying about losing hair or looking ill is shallow when they are facing a serious disease, but it’s a normal response and one you are allowed to address. For example, if you are expected to lose your hair look into your options; you may feel most comfortable with a with, decide to use another head covering for comfort or warmth, or forgo it altogether. Focus on what makes you feel more comfortable, not on what you think others need to feel OK about how you look.
Consider your options:
Cole had a mastectomy on one side, with reconstruction done a few years after her diagnosis and treatment. She says that if she were making the choice again she would have a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery for both breasts. Everyone has a different diagnosis and therefore different options for treatment. Ask the questions you need to ask to make sure you are comfortable with the course you are choosing and understand the potential risks and benefits involved.
Remember that it doesn’t end with surgery:
“I think health-care professionals need to try and prepare their patients more on what lies ahead, all the major changes your body is going to go through,” Cole says. This doesn’t only mean surgery, or even the effects of the chemotherapy and/or radiation. Sometimes hair does not grow back the same way after chemotherapy, for example, or related issues like neuropathy persist for years after the fact. Some patients need to take medications that will put them in menopause, which brings along its own issues. Others may experience lymphoma, infection, or difficulty healing from surgery. Being informed about what you may face not just in the immediate future but also down the road can help you prepare for it.
Live your life:
Continue with the routines and pleasures of regular life, as much as your diagnosis and overall health allow. Cancer can be all-consuming but it’s important to maintain the aspects of you that existed before diagnosis and of the life you will have once treatment is over. The Mayo Clinic recommends figuring out your priorities, planning for the financial impact of cancer, and finding a way to cope, but also suggests letting people help you and continuing with your life and work as you are able to do so.