Supportive care is all the care given to improve quality of life for people with breast cancer (or other serious health condition). Symptom management (also called palliative care) is part of supportive care. Rather than treating the cancer itself, symptom management aims to prevent or relieve the side effects of breast cancer and its treatment (such as pain or nausea). Supportive care also includes taking care of emotional, social and spiritual health needs as well as practical needs (such as child care or elder care).
Supportive care begins at diagnosis and continues throughout treatment and beyond. It is a vital part of care for people with early, locally advanced or metastatic breast cancer. Learn more pain management and additional care for people with metastatic breast cancer.
Here, we discuss supportive care for people with early or locally advanced breast cancer. You can find information on managing many aspects of care including:
Managing the emotional impact of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment
After a cancer diagnosis, you may have a wide range of emotions including shock, fear, denial, sadness and anger. It is common to feel depressed and anxious . Taking care of your emotional well-being during this time can be just as important as tending to the physical side effects of treatment. Talk with your health care provider about how you are coping with the emotional impact of your diagnosis and treatment. He/she can help you find ways to improve your emotional well-being and can help you find a counselor or support group.
Learn more about:
The importance of social support for breast cancer survivors
Social support is the emotional support, practical help and other benefits you get from your family, friends and other co-survivors. You may also get social support from your community including your church, synagogue or other religious organizations. Many survivors expand and strengthen their social support systems by joining a breast cancer support group.
Social support can improve your emotional health. Breast cancer survivors who have a lot of social support tend to cope better than survivors with little support [153-155].
Learn more about social support and support groups.
The importance of social support for family, friends and other co-survivors
As with any major illness, breast cancer can have effects that reach far beyond the person who is diagnosed. Spouses and partners, family members and other co-survivors may feel many of the same emotions as the person diagnosed: shock, sadness, fear, anger and denial. Although they can be strong sources of support throughout diagnosis, treatment and recovery, loved ones (especially spouses, partners and children) may need social support themselves to help get through the experience.
Learn more about social support for co-survivors.
Find more information for co-survivors and a list of resources for co-survivors.
Managing the short-term side effects of breast cancer treatment
All breast cancer treatments have some short-term physical side effects. However, everyone is different. With any treatment, your side effects may differ from another person’s. The good news is that most side effects can be managed and many can be prevented. Even so, it’s natural to worry. Before any treatment begins, talk with your health care provider about possible side effects and ways to deal with them.
Once treatment begins, tell your provider about any side effects you have. The only way that your provider can help you manage side effects is if he/she knows about them. So, it’s important to be honest and tell your provider what you are experiencing. Then, together, you and your provider can discuss ways to manage your symptoms. It may be helpful to keep a list of your symptoms to take with your to your provider visit.
Relieving your symptoms helps you feel better and can help you complete your treatment plan. Breast cancer treatment is most effective when all parts of the treatment plan are completed (learn more).
Managing the side effects of surgery
Whether you have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy (with or without breast reconstruction), it is likely you will have temporary soreness in your chest, underarm and shoulder. Do not hesitate to let your health care provider know about any pain or discomfort you have after surgery. Learn more about managing pain related to breast cancer surgery.
Other possible health effects depend on the type of surgery and whether or not lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary lymph nodes) are removed. Talk with your surgeon about the side effects that you are likely to have after your surgery and how best to treat them. There may be some conditions (such as lymphedema) that you should be aware of so that you can report symptoms to your provider.
Possible side effects of surgery include:
Learn more about lumpectomy.
Learn more about mastectomy.
Learn more about breast reconstruction.
Managing the side effects of radiation therapy
Radiation therapy can cause some short-term side effects. Most often, these side effects begin within a few weeks of starting treatment and go away within a few weeks after treatment ends . Even so, it’s natural to worry. Before radiation therapy begins, talk with your health care provider about possible side effects and ways to deal with them. Relieving your symptoms helps you feel better and can help you complete your radiation therapy plan. Radiation therapy is most effective when it is completed (learn more).
Some possible short-term side effects of radiation therapy include:
Learn about possible late effects of radiation therapy.
Learn more about radiation therapy.
Managing the side effects of chemotherapy
Chemotherapy has many common side effects. The possible side effects and how common and severe they may be depend on the type of chemotherapy. Most side effects occur during treatment and begin to go away shortly after treatment ends. Let your oncologist or nurse know how the sessions make you feel. They may be able to treat or prevent many side effects. Even so, it’s natural to worry. Before chemotherapy begins, talk with your health care provider about possible side effects and ways to deal with them. Relieving your symptoms helps you feel better and can help you complete your chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is most effective when it is completed (learn more).
Some possible short-term side effects of chemotherapy include:
Learn about possible late effects of chemotherapy.
Learn more about chemotherapy.
Managing the side effects of targeted therapy
Targeted therapy drugs such as trastuzumab (Herceptin) have fewer side effects than chemotherapy. Unlike chemotherapy drugs, targeted therapies kill cancer cells while causing little harm to healthy cells.
Learn more about trastuzumab, including possible side effects.
Learn more about targeted therapies.
Managing the side effects of hormone therapy
Hormone therapies include tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors. Some side effects of these drugs (such as menopausal symptoms) may become less frequent and less intense over time, but they can still be hard to manage. Before hormone therapy begins, talk with your health care provider about possible side effects and ways to deal with them.
Let your provider know about any side effects you have. The only way that your provider can help you manage side effects is if he/she knows about them. These drugs are taken for at least five years. That can be a long time to deal with side effects, so, it’s important to be honest and tell your provider what you are experiencing. Together, you and your provider can discuss ways to manage your symptoms. Your provider may also be able to switch you to a different hormone therapy that may have fewer side effects for you.
Relieving your symptoms helps you feel better and can help you complete your hormone therapy. Hormone therapy is most effective when it is completed (learn more).
Some common short-term side effects of tamoxifen include:
Learn about possible late effects of tamoxifen.
Learn more about tamoxifen.
Common short-term side effects of aromatase inhibitors include:
Learn about possible late effects of aromatase inhibitors.
Learn more about aromatase inhibitors.
Managing pain related to breast cancer treatment
Relieving pain is important throughout your breast cancer care. You should never hesitate to let your health care provider know about any pain or discomfort you are having. The goal of pain management is to give the most pain relief with the least amount of therapy (to limit side effects).
For most people, pain from breast cancer treatment is temporary and goes away after treatment ends. Some people, however, can have pain for longer periods of time. Learn more about managing pain related to breast cancer treatment.
Managing practical needs
As a breast cancer survivor, you face many practical challenges throughout your treatment. You must deal with insurance and other financial issues as well as fit treatment into your already busy life. You may need help getting to and from treatment, help with child care or simply need help getting groceries on days when you don’t feel well. There are many resources available to help you and your family to manage practical needs.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, dealing with insurance and financial issues can feel overwhelming. Whether you need help going through your insurance plan or financial assistance for prescription drug costs, there are resources to help you and your family.
Learn more about:
Transportation, lodging, child care and elder care issues
Some people find it hard to get to and from their breast cancer treatments. Not only can transportation and lodging be issues, but you may also need help with child care or elder care. There are organizations that offer transportation and lodging assistance and some organizations offer financial assistance to cover child care and elder care costs while you are undergoing treatment.
Learn more about:
Family, friends and other co-survivors can also be good sources of practical support. Co-survivors often want to help, but don’t know how. Let your co-survivors know how they can help you in practical ways such as driving you to an appointment, watching your children, helping with laundry or picking up groceries.
Find information for co-survivors and a brochure for helpful tips for co-survivors.
Managing the late effects of treatment
Once breast cancer treatment ends, most of the physical side effects of treatment go away. However, some side effects may be long-term and some may occur months or even years after treatment ends. These late effects of treatment vary from person to person, so what you go through may be different from other breast cancer survivors. Learn more about possible late effects of breast cancer treatment.