The end of breast cancer treatment brings excitement and relief to many patients. It can also be a problematic time, as one deals with concerns about a recurrence and learns how to function without seeing their care team so often. For those with advanced breast cancer, it may not go away completely. These patients might continue to receive hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and other treatments to relieve symptoms and keep cancer under control.
Even if a patient has finished treatment, their doctors will watch them closely. It’s important to attend all follow-up appointments. During these doctor visits, the team will perform an examination and ask about any issues that may occur. However, if a patient has any concerns about their cancer, they don’t have to wait until their next visit—they should call their doctor right away.
The Follow-Up Schedule
A breast cancer patient’s follow-up schedule will depend on various factors, including the type of cancer, its level of advancement, and how it is being (or was being) treated.
- Doctor visits. If a patient has finished treatment, their follow-up visits will likely occur every few months. The longer they’ve been cancer-free, the less often these appointments are required.
- Mammograms. In cases involving breast conservation surgery, a patient will get a mammogram about six to 12 months after radiation and surgery are done and once a year afterward.
- Pelvic exams. When patients take hormone drugs and retain their reproductive organs, they should have a yearly pelvic exam because these medicines increase the risk of uterine cancer.
- Bone density testing. If a patient takes hormone drugs known as aromatase inhibitors for early-stage cancer, their doctor will want to perform bone density testing.
- Other tests. Imaging and blood tests aren’t a standard part of post-breast cancer follow-up care because they have not been shown to affect survival rates. However, they may be done if a patient has exam findings or symptoms that indicate a recurrence.
If exams and testing suggest a cancer recurrence, imaging tests and biopsies may be done. Doctors will also look for tumor cells within the patient’s blood and use those results to monitor the effectiveness of various treatments.
If the Cancer Returns
If breast cancer reoccurs, a patient’s treatment options depend on where it appears, the treatments they’ve previously had, their health status, and their preferences. It’s important to remember that those who have had breast cancer are at a higher risk of other cancers. Therefore, it’s crucial to abide by the American Cancer Society’s guidelines on early detection.