Living with Breast Cancer

BREAST CANCER is the second most common form of cancer in women after skin cancer (it is much less common among men). Breast cancer can start in many areas of the breast (e.g., the ducts or the lobes), and it can either stay there or spread to other body parts. Common treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and/or hormonal therapy. However, side effects of treatment may be changes in physical, cognitive (mental), and/or emotional well-being.

Side effects from breast cancer and/or its treatment may prevent you from doing everyday activities that are important to you. These challenges may be present during treatment for cancer or after the treatment is through. Physically, you may experience changes in movement ability, muscle strength, sensation, energy, pain, or posture, resulting in difficulty completing daily tasks such as dressing yourself and cooking. You may also experience lymphedema, a chronic swelling condition that can occur even years after treatment, which may cause feelings of discomfort, aching, heaviness, or tightness, often in the upper extremities.

Many people don’t realize that breast cancer and its treatment can also lead to changes in concentration, memory, or multitasking abilities, resulting in difficulty with activities such as working, driving, or taking care of personal or family needs. You may have anxiety or depression, which makes it even harder to do the things you once enjoyed and to maintain important relationships.

But the news isn’t all negative. An Occupational Therapist can help you address these challenges so you can still do the things you want and need to do—your valued occupations—so you are able to live life to your fullest potential.


I want to: What you can do: An Occupational Therapist will:

Complete daily activities more easily

Focus on those things that are most important to you to help maintain quality of life.

Implement activities and exercises to improve range of motion and strengthen muscles that are necessary to complete daily activities, and/or suggest alternate ways to complete activities more easily (e.g., using adaptive equipment).

Manage lymphedema

Perform exercise, gently wrap the entire limb, or gently massage the limb to help move lymph fluid up or down into the body. Contact a physician if symptoms don’t improve.

Show you ways to reduce or manage lymphedema through manual lymphatic drainage, compression bandaging, skin care, and exercise.

Have more energy

Make sure you are getting ample sleep and eating well.

Provide ways to manage fatigue and prioritize, schedule, and organize daily tasks to help maintain energy for those things you want and need to do; and provide strategies to balance activity with rest.

Have less pain

Keep track of when and what you were doing when you experienced pain to share with and help your health care professional help you.

Introduce non-pharmacologic pain management strategies. These may include relaxation and other techniques.

Make life less stressful

Talk with your family, employer, etc. about realistic expectations as you undergo your treatment. A support group with other people who can personally relate to what you are going through may also bring comfort.

Implement stress management and relaxation techniques to help you cope with depression, anxiety, and stress related to cancer and its treatment.

Feel more in control

Make a realistic to do list every day. Checking off items, no matter how small, can produce a feeling of accomplishment.

Provide personalized family and caregiver education during or after recovery from breast cancer to address your particular concerns, including problems with concentration, memory, and physical abilities, as well as strategies to maintain social relationships.

Resume life roles

Give your most significant roles and activities associated with each priority, focus on these items.

Recommend alternate ways to perform activities while dealing with symptoms so you can return to your roles whatever they may be (parent, spouse, worker, etc.).

Need More Information?

If you would like to consult with an Occupational Therapist while undergoing or after completing treatment for breast cancer, please speak with your physician for a referral. Occupational therapy is also an appropriate service for lymphedema covered by most insurance policies and Medicare, even if a long time has passed since the original diagnosis, and in many states you can contact an occupational therapist directly to obtain services if you are not seeking insurance reimbursement.