11 Things You Want To Know After Being Diagnosed With Breast Cancer


Being diagnosed with breast cancer is overwhelming and you'll no doubt have hundreds of questions running through your head.

What does this mean? What happens next? What treatment will I have?

HuffPost UK Lifestyle spoke to John Newlands, a senior cancer nurse specialist for Macmillan Cancer Support and Jane Murphy, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care to find out the common questions people ask after their diagnosis.

Newlands said often when people first hear the word "cancer", they will be unable to take in any information their doctor gives them aftwerwards. He said one in five calls to Macmillan is on the topic of breast cancer.

Speaking to HuffPost UK Lifestyle, Newlands said: "Typically people phone us up and say 'I've been told I've got breast cancer, I was given information but I forgot what was said'.

"Some of the advice we offer includes: always take someone with you to appointments - a friend or family member who can support you emotionally but also be a second pair of ears.

"Don't be afraid to ask questions and take notes, write down what your doctors tell you."

Here are 11 things you will want to know after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

1. What has caused it?

Murphy said: "Many people wonder 'why me' when they are diagnosed with breast cancer, particularly if they feel they follow a healthy lifestyle or if breast cancer doesn’t run in their family.

"The two biggest risk factors for developing breast cancer are being a woman and getting older. Having a significant family history may increase someone’s risk but only about 5 to 10% of all breast cancers are hereditary (run in the family). These are all factors we cannot control.

"It’s important to adopt a healthy lifestyle for many health reasons and it can help reduce your risk of breast cancer. But the link between lifestyle factors and breast cancer risk is not yet fully understood.

"One in eight women in the UK will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and for the majority it’s not possible to say what caused it."

2. Am I going to die?

"Being diagnosed with breast cancer can be really scary and this is one of the first things many people ask," explained Murphy.

"Most people diagnosed with breast cancer do not die because of it. In fact, more than three quarters (78%) of people diagnosed survive beyond ten years.

"Early diagnosis means treatment is more likely to effective. So it’s important to get to know what your breasts look and feel like. That way if you notice anything different you will feel more confident reporting it to your GP.

"If the cancer has spread to another part of the body then treatments can control it but it cannot be cured."

3. How do I tell family and friends/my children?

Newlands said this is a question women ask a lot.

He said: "It's always difficult, particularly if you are struggling to take it in and absorb it yourself. It takes a lot emotionally to pass the news on to family and friends, but it's about how you manage it and what strategies you take.

"When talking to children about a diagnosis, depending on their age, discuss ways that you can talk about it positively, such as being sick but getting control of the sickness, having medicines to make you feel better for example.

"We advise not to avoid talking about it at all. Even young children will be sensitive to changes that take place when you're undergoing treatment.

"Find the right time for you and be open about what's going on, because the fear of the unknown for a young child is often worse than the truth."

4. When will I start treatment?

"Once all the necessary tests have been done and you’ve met with your doctor to agree your treatment plan, you should start that treatment within 31 days," explained Murphy.

5. What are the treatments?

Murphy said there are a number of treatments used for breast cancer including:

Surgery to remove the cancer: such as a lumpectomy or mastectomy.

Chemotherapy: a treatment using anti-cancer (also called cytotoxic) drugs. The aim is to destroy breast cancer cells.

Radiotherapy: uses carefully measured and controlled high energy x-rays to damage and destroy cancer cells.

Hormone therapy: such as the drug tamoxifen. The hormone oestrogen can play a part in stimulating some breast cancers to grow. There are a number of different hormone therapies that work in different ways to stop this happening.

Targeted therapy: a group of drugs, such as Herceptin, that block the growth and spread of cancer. They target and interfere with processes in the cells that cause cancer to grow.

She added: "A team of specialists (called the multidisciplinary team) will meet to discuss your situation and decide on the best treatment or combination of treatments for you."

6. Will I have to have my breast removed?

"Wherever possible surgeons will offer breast conserving surgery - where the cancer is removed along with a very small area of healthy tissue. This is called a wide local excision or lumpectomy," said Murphy.

"Some women, however, may need removal of the whole breast including the skin and nipple area (mastectomy).

"This is more likely if the cancer takes up a large area of the breast, if there is more than one area of the cancer in the breast, or if someone chooses to have a mastectomy."

7. Will I lose my hair?

Murphy explained: "Chemotherapy for breast cancer does cause hair loss and can be one of the most distressing side effects. Not everyone diagnosed with breast cancer will need chemotherapy; it depends on the individual situation.

"Hair loss might be avoided or reduced by cooling the scalp using a ‘cold cap’ during treatment. If you are going to have chemotherapy speak to your team about hair loss. Some women on hormone therapy might also notice hair loss or thinning."

8. Are there any other side effects?

"Medical teams are very good at going through side effects but we understand it's an awful lot to take in," said Newlands. "Many people will read the written information then call us to go through it in more depth.

"Aside from hair loss, fatigue and tiredness become overriding side effects because it can affect all aspects of your life. It doesn't go away after a 20-minute snooze, it's all day every day for some people.

"Managing that can impact on social life and the ability to run a house. The best way to manage it isn't to rest more, it's to rest a bit less and maintain physical activity as much as you can throughout your treatment.

"There are physical benefits to that as well as psychological benefits. Fatigue can make a person a prisoner in their own home because if you're not getting out and socialising you can begin to feel low.

"Act on the moment you feel better and go and do something. Don't plan ahead because you might not feel like it when it comes around. If you feel good, call someone up and stay active right then."

9. Will I be able to have children after treatment?

Murphy said: "Chemotherapy causes changes within the ovaries, which may lead to infertility. This can be an extremely particularly distressing side effect. The risk of infertility is greater if you’re over 35 years of age and rises the older you get.

"If you want children in the future or if you are unsure, it’s important to discuss any fertility concerns with your specialist team before you start your chemotherapy treatment and ask for a referral to a fertility clinic. Find out more about the available options to preserve fertility."

10. Can I still work?

Murphy said some people continue working during treatment. She said: "It depends on what treatment you are having, how it affects you, as well as the type of work you do and your financial circumstances."

11. What support is available?

Patients on the NHS will have a breast care nurse. These specially trained nurses provide a range of information and support to people affected by breast cancer. They are usually the main contact for anyone diagnosed and going through treatment.

If you have been diagnosed and are not sure who your breast care nurse is do ask at the hospital.

Call Breast Cancer Care’s nurses free on 0808 800 6000 or visit for more information.

Call 0808 808 0000 or visit to speak to a cancer nurse specialist.

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