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Published on September 30, 2016

What to Expect After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Hearing that you have breast cancer is one of the scariest moments of your life. This year, 300,000 women (and about 2,500 men) will have that conversation with their doctors, joining the 2.8 million women in the United States who have experienced breast cancer. Despite how relatively common breast cancer is, your disease is personal and unique. And while your treatment and outcome will be specific to your needs, you’ll share many of the same experiences with the millions of other women who have breast cancer. Here’s what you should expect immediately after your diagnosis.

The Call from the Office

Your doctor will likely tell you about your abnormal mammogram results over the phone, which does not necessarily mean you have breast cancer. You will not be expected to make any important decisions at this point. After that first phone call, you’ll have time to overcome your initial shock and formulate questions that you may want to ask at your next appointment. The period after this phone call can be one of the toughest steps in the process, since there is a lot of anxiety and waiting involved.

“When you meet with your doctor after receiving abnormal mammogram results, he or she will walk you through the decisions you’ll need to make around your biopsy,” said James T. Moore, MD, senior surgeon, Breast Cancer at Abington - Jefferson Health. “Normally, you will go back to the radiologist for an image-guided biopsy. Using a CT or ultrasound, they will take a small amount of tissue from the right spot for testing.”

Dr. Moore and his staff spend as much time as needed with patients during that first appointment, which typically lasts from an hour to an hour and a half. Each patient and her treatment options will be unique, and he likes to spend the time answering all of her questions.

The First Questions

If the results of your biopsy indicate breast cancer, you will have many questions.

“The first question we hear from most women is, ‘Am I going to die?’ It’s a natural thought, but mostly misplaced,” said Dr. Moore. “Advancements in imaging and other diagnostic tools make it easier to catch breast cancer early, which is essential to a successful outcome.” In fact, over the last 60 years, breast cancer survival rates have tripled.

The other most common question is if radiation will be required, and if it will cause hair loss. In reality, radiation does not cause hair loss in women being treated for breast cancer; chemotherapy does. Only a small percentage of women will need chemotherapy to treat their breast cancer.

Many patients also fear that they will need a mastectomy or double mastectomy when they learn they have breast cancer. In nearly 80 percent of cases, a mastectomy isn’t necessary. Surgeons try to be as conservative as possible, instead opting for a lumpectomy and targeted radiation, which is just as effective in most cases.

Lots of Well-Meaning Advice

Since breast cancer is so common, virtually everyone has dealt with the disease themselves or knows someone who has. This gives you another channel for information, which may be positive but can also be overwhelming.

“Once your family and friends hear that you have breast cancer, you’ll hear many stories and lots of well-meaning advice,” said Dr. Moore. “However, you must keep in mind that your cancer and treatment plan is unique, so someone else’s experience or something you read online may not be relevant.”

Dr. Moore advises that your surgeon and his staff serve as your first point of contact for advice and resources. They will know the most about your specific illness and its most appropriate treatment plan.

Abington has breast cancer navigators who can help coordinate appointments, answer questions and offer support. For more information, call 1-800-405-HELP.

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Breast Cancer Genetic Counseling

Free risk assessment and counseling for those concerned about breast cancer in their family; also for ovarian, colorectal and uterine cancers. Contact the nurse genetic counselor at 215-481-2715 for more information.

Breast Cancer Screenings

Free or low-cost breast cancer screenings are offered throughout the year as a community service. For a schedule of dates, contact Community Health Education at 215-481-2204.