Thanks to early detection and more aggressive treatments, more women today are surviving breast cancer than ever before. In fact, if treatment can begin when cancer is confined to the breast, the five-year survival rate is over 90 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Despite this good news, the road to recovery is not always easy. “Women often face their greatest challenges when they finish cancer treatment and try to transition back to their previous way of life,” says Susan M. Freeman, MD, a board-certified oncologist with Kaiser Permanente Colorado.
A whirlwind at first
When first diagnosed, women are put through a series of tests and often consult with several physicians to create a breast cancer treatment plan. Many are overwhelmed in trying to understand the various treatment options and get through the recommended treatments. Treatment usually includes surgery, which may be followed by chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal therapy. “Even though women may feel tired and experience side effects from these treatments, they feel as if they are actively doing something to treat the cancer,” Dr. Freeman says.
“One thing we do to help patients cope with their diagnosis and treatment is empower them by providing accurate information about their breast cancer and its treatment every step of the way,” Dr. Freeman continues.
Healing power of time
Time also helps women recover – physically and emotionally. “With the passage of time after breast cancer treatment, most women get back to their pre-cancer energy level,” Dr. Freeman says. Women who are very self-motivated and able to resume exercise on a routine basis seem to make a quicker physical recovery.”
An even greater challenge for many survivors is overcoming mental and emotional concerns. “It’s very common for women to worry their cancer will come back,” Dr. Freeman says. “That’s a valid concern and one of their most difficult challenges. However, as time goes by, most realize they can survive and are able to lead a happy life with a healthy, but not overwhelming, fear of recurrence.”
Plan for survival
Like any journey, it is helpful for breast cancer patients to have a guide that outlines their road to recovery. Kaiser Permanente recently introduced such a guide – known as the “survivorship plan.” It is part of patients’ electronic medical record, which can be accessed by their entire care team. Alexander Menter, MD, an oncologist with Kaiser Permanente Colorado, developed the plan.
“In general, the survivorship plan includes detailed information about a patient’s type of breast cancer and her individualized treatment plan, such as the type of surgery, chemotherapy or hormonal therapy, and names of all treating physicians. It also includes recommended follow-up care, such as when to get blood work and mammograms, and when to schedule physician visits. The plan also explains what symptoms to look for and discuss with your physician,” Dr. Freeman explains.
“We feel that giving patients this important information empowers them to better understand and cope with their breast cancer,” Dr. Freeman continues. “We also hope that providing detailed information to our patients lets them know that we are working together as a team and that questions and open discussions are welcome and encouraged.”
Another goal of the survivorship plan is to provide an easy reference for primary care physicians. “Some patients may choose to have follow-up care with both their oncologist and primary care physician, and our survivorship plan helps facilitate this joint effort by allowing primary care physicians to view our follow-up recommendations,” Dr. Freeman says. “Primary care physicians often have a longstanding rapport with their patients and want to be a part of the process, which we encourage.”
To learn more about surviving breast cancer, visit www.KaiserPermanente.org.