Planning for life after breast cancer treatment

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Daniel Liu, MD, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon

This page was reviewed on February 8, 2022.

Patients may think that cancer survivorship begins after treatment ends, but it actually begins with a diagnosis. Survivorship focuses on the patient's overall health and well-being, and this includes everything from financial stability to emotional health.

Life after breast cancer treatment may be different than life before cancer, but that doesn’t mean breast cancer patients can’t enjoy the many things they’ve always loved. The sooner patients discuss life after treatment with their care team, the better prepared they may be to face the physical and emotional challenges of survivorship.

Creating a survivorship plan

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to life after breast cancer treatment, which is why a customized survivorship plan may help. Patients can always adjust the plan as they go, but having the roadmap is a critical first step.

The plan may include:

  • A list of potential late or long-term side effects and symptoms
  • Recommended follow-up tests and screenings
  • A diet and exercise plan
  • Health insurance for follow-up care
  • Fertility/pregnancy resources
  • Mental health support
  • Sex and intimacy support
  • A guide on discussing survivorship with loved ones
  • Financial planning

Potential long-term effects and late symptoms

Recovery is a lifelong process, especially for survivors. In the months and years following treatment, patients may face unexpected side effects. This doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer has returned, but some symptoms may require follow-up care, including a visit to their care team.

Possible long-term side effects of breast cancer treatment include:

  • Menopausal symptoms
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in breast tissue
  • Fertility issues
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Distress or anxiety
  • Loss of bone density
  • Neuropathy
  • Postmastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS)

Preparation is key in recognizing these side effects. Talk to the care team about all of the possible side effects of treatment to find ways to prevent or recognize them quickly and treat them effectively.

Follow-up health care

After-treatment care is just as important as during-treatment care, especially for breast cancer survivors.

  • Consider creating a follow-up schedule, which may include routine doctor visits, pelvic exams, mammograms, bone density tests, monitoring and more.
  • Keep a good record of all appointments, test results and follow-up care in the survivorship plan.
  • This plan can serve as a reference for the patient and her care team, including any doctors she may see for other conditions.

How often to see an oncologist after breast cancer

Following breast cancer treatment, patients will continue to see their care team regularly. During the first few years, these visits may take place about every six months, after which they may occur annually. During these visits, the care team aims to reach several goals, including:

  • Monitoring the patient for signs of breast cancer recurrence
  • Evaluating whether the patient is experiencing side effects from treatment or from the disease itself
  • Monitoring whether the patient's medications are working, and suggesting ways to help manage side effects
  • Evaluating whether the patient has signs of lymphedema
  • Sharing updates on appropriate follow-up care
  • Providing resources to help manage emotional health and other medical issues
  • Sharing ways to help reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence
  • Answering the patient's questions about treatment, recurrence or other topics

How often are mammograms performed after breast cancer?

Following breast cancer treatment, the care team will provide a mammogram schedule, which may include annual tests or those performed more often, to check for breast cancer recurrence. Women who’ve had double mastectomies typically don’t require post-treatment mammograms.

Women who underwent a lumpectomy, partial mastectomy or other treatments that preserve breast tissue typically need to continue getting mammograms.

Understanding terms like 'remission' and 'cancer-free' after breast cancer

Cancer survivors may wonder when they’re considered cancer-free or in remission from breast cancer.

Remission: If the patient’s care team uses this term, it typically means the cancer has responded to treatment and the patient hasn’t shown any signs of disease for a certain period of time. Remission may be classified as partial remission, which means the cancer has shrunk but isn’t completely gone, or complete remission, which means all symptoms and signs of cancer are gone and cancer hasn’t been detected. During remission, treatment may or may not continue, depending on the care team's recommendation.

Cancer-free: The care team is less likely to use the term "cancer-free," but if they do, it means they've taken tests that show no further evidence of disease (NED).

Even if the care team sees no signs of cancer during testing, there's still a chance that some microscopic, undetectable cancer cells may remain in the body, which is why the care team continues to monitor patients after treatment ends.

Financial planning

Cancer treatments can take a financial toll. Even when a patient has finished breast cancer treatments, she’ll have to prepare for follow-up tests and potential treatment plans for other medical issues. A financial planner may be able help map out a budget and plan ahead.

Good health guide

Many of these steps may begin before treatment, as well as continue afterward, because a healthy lifestyle is helpful for optimal physical and emotional health.


A healthy diet for breast cancer survivors should include an abundance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Try to limit or remove red meats, processed meats, foods with refined sugars and fats, as well as sugary drinks. Don’t smoke, and limit alcoholic beverages to one a day, if at all. While eating healthy foods and maintaining a healthy weight can be challenging, these choices can help reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and the formation of a new cancer.


Physical activity can help with fatigue and other cancer treatment side effects. Daily walks, swimming or biking are good exercise options, but make sure to discuss a planned exercise routine with the care team. They can guide patients on the most appropriate activities.

Emotional health

Living with uncertainty and the fear of recurrence can be mentally draining. A mental health professional, especially one who specializes in coping with cancer survivorship, will have a unique understanding of what the patient is going through and help navigate the next chapter.

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