Feature Archive

Breast Cancer: Answers to Your Questions

How do you tell the kids? How can you stay calm? There are some questions your doctor can't answer. Here are insights from people who understand other women with breast cancer.

By Jayne Garrison
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines

Am I going to make it ?
How am I going to look after treatment ?
What do I tell my kids ?
What can I do to lessen my anxiety ?
How do I deal with my job ?
What should I expect of my friends ?
How do I deal with insensitive comments ?

Am I going to make it?

We all ask this question, even if only in our minds. The difficult truth, of course, is that no one can give you a guarantee -- not your surgeon, not your oncologist. But you have far better odds than you may think. Most women with breast cancer in the U.S. survive more than five years, the yardstick used by most doctors.

Our suggestion?

Do a lot of research! Go on the Internet or to the local library. Take notes! You'll feel more in control if you're informed. And it'll help you ask the right questions to get the answers you need from your doctors. Some doctors may not offer to show you your pathology report showing the type of cancer you have and possibly information on how far it has spread. Ask for it! Some doctors may not offer you all the treatment choices. Others may lay out every possible choice, then say the decision is up to you. Either way, you'll feel more confident if you've done your own research.

Also, talk to other survivors. Go on the Internet and visit message boards for breast cancer survivors. Just post the question: Anyone out there who was diagnosed 10 or even 20 years ago? You'll be amazed by all the women who answer you. They can offer you the hope and courage you need now.

How am I going to look after treatment?

The answer depends on what you do.

If you have a mastectomy that is covered by your health insurance, your insurance is required to cover full reconstructive surgery as well. You can even have the plastic surgeon waiting to walk into the operating room the moment your breast surgeon walks out. But you'll have to ask for this; don't expect your doctor or insurer to suggest it! Plastic surgeons can rebuild real looking breasts with implants or with tissue from your own body (like fat and muscle). They can even rebuild the nipple.

If you have a lumpectomy, you may have a small dimple in your breast -- or a large divot -- it all depends on how much tissue the surgeon removes.

Many women choose no reconstruction. Yes, you'll have a flat chest, but for some women that's no big deal.

There's no right choice here. The important thing is that you do what feels right for you. You can have some good-looking breasts reconstructed. Or you can fit a pad into your bra whenever you feel like it.

Losing your hair may bother you nearly as much as losing your breast! There's just something about seeing clumps of hair falling onto your shoulder that makes it seem like you're really sick. You can also expect to lose eyelashes and brows, nose hair, and pubic hair. Most women cut their hair very short before beginning chemo, so the hair loss isn't so dramatic. Several women on WebMD even shaved our heads, and it felt great. You'll have enough to cry over during these early months of diagnosis without crying about your hair. Once again, there's no right choice -- except to be true to yourself. If your hair is important to you, splurge and buy a terrific wig. If it's not, have fun trying out some stylish turban wraps. And even if you haven't worn much makeup since high school, play around a little! Call the American Cancer Society and sign up for their "Look Good Feel Better" program. They'll hook you up with a volunteer cosmetologist who can teach you how to draw on eyebrows, apply makeup, and wrap turbans.

One last point: Don't be surprised if you gain 10 or 20 pounds during treatment. Most doctors warn you about losing weight because of nausea. But some medications cause you to gain weight, and so do many of the foods that settle your stomach -- mashed potatoes, crackers, etc. Never go on a diet during treatment without talking to your doctor.

Remember, pamper yourself in every way possible. Eat what you want to eat, within reason. Buy what you want to buy to make yourself look good in your eyes. It's important to know yourself, and to give yourself what you need.

What do I tell my kids?

Most women in WebMD's breast cancer community just sat our children down and told them we had breast cancer. We told them we would probably have an operation and chemotherapy, and that we would be sick for awhile, but we were pretty sure we would get better. What you say, of course, depends on how old your children are. But, keep in mind, your children will feel hurt if you exclude them from this part of your life. They want to help. And they'll probably feel a little safer if they're involved.


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