For women with a current or previous diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer

Whether you have recently been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer or you have just received the all-clear from a previous diagnosis, you’re likely feeling confused, scared and uncertain about what lies ahead. Cancer stirs up intense emotion and raises so many questions.
The first thing to know is, you are not alone. It’s normal and natural to be scared when cancer has touched your life. Having reliable information and advice, knowing how to look after yourself and feel supported is important at these times.

I have breast or ovarian cancer

Who can I turn to for advice and support?

Almost everyone with cancer is bombarded by advice or recommendations from well-meaning family and friends. While it is great to have people around us who care, it is vital to seek accurate and reliable information. The best place to start is with your healthcare professionals. Your doctor, cancer specialist (medical oncologist) and family cancer clinic will guide you through the next stages.
You can also access quality information from charities, government sites and research organisations.
The Australian Government: Cancer Australia publishes comprehensive downloadable pamphlets for women with early stage or secondary breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
These guides address many aspects of cancer, including:

  • diagnosis process
  • coping with your diagnosis
  • treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • follow-up and monitoring of your cancer
  • complementary and alternative therapies
  • managing symptoms of cancer, including pain
  • managing side effects of treatment
  • practical and financial support.

What are my treatment options?

No two women are identical. Similarly, no two cancers are identical. What works for one woman may not work for another.
It is important to discuss with your cancer care team the options available to you. These may include one or a combination of the following: radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone treatment or surgery. Your oncologist will be able to help you decide which options are most suitable for your individual situation.
The Royal Women’s Hospital (Vic) explains the options, side effects and effectiveness of various treatments for ovarian cancer in a downloadable document.
A similar resource is available for breast cancer from Cancer Australia’s website.
Both links include a convenient list of questions you might like to ask your oncologist.

Are clinical trials an option for me?

Clinical trials are carefully designed research studies that investigate a new test or treatment in people. Trials may look at whether a new treatment is safe, its side effects, or how well a test or treatment works. Being part of a clinical trial may be an option for you, and has its own benefits and risks. Cancer Australia offer lots of information about cancer clinical trials, including about the benefits and risks of clinical trials.

If you are interested in joining a clinical trial or simply want to know more, speak to your cancer specialist. They should know about local clinical trials and whether the trial would suit you.

Will genetic testing help me?

Genetic testing may help clarify a woman’s personal risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and provide information about familial risk of these cancers. Having been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, your cancer specialist may already have referred you to a family cancer clinic or for genetic testing. If they have not done so, it may be because your cancer appears unlikely to have resulted from an inherited genetic mutation. If you want to find out if genetic testing may be helpful for you, it is best to speak with your cancer specialist. Remember, your healthcare professionals are there to help you.
If you would like to learn more, Pink Hope offers information about genetic counselling which may be helpful. You can also submit questions to Pink Hope’s genetic counsellor.
HealthDirect provide some general information about genetic testing and the Australian Government’s Australian Law Reform Commission offers further information including access, cost, availability and referral procedures for genetic testing.
The Centre for Genetics Education provides services for diagnosis, genetic counselling and testing. They also offers fact sheets, pamphlets and other helpful resources.
Just like with other medical procedures, you may have both publicy and privately funded options available to you for genetic testing. Refer to Pink Hope’s guide to public and private Family Cancer Clinics and genetic testing in Australia.

What about fertility?

Depending on what procedure you have, and particularly with ovarian cancer, you may experience infertility or go through early (premature) menopause. This is referred to as treatment-induced menopause and it can be extremely distressing if you want to have children in the future.
There may be options available to you, so it’s good to prepare a list of questions to discuss with your doctor, oncologist and a fertility specialist.
Pink Hope provides a list of questions you may want to ask your oncologist of fertility specialists.
IVF Australia also offers information about fertility preservation and other procedures.

How will I cope with everyday life?

All of a sudden, you might find that day-to-day tasks become a huge effort. It’s so important now to ask for and accept help. And equally importantly, to look after your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Your cancer care team will be able to direct you to helpful resources and support groups.
Cancer Australia offer information to help people with cancer manage common physical symptoms and emotional changes.

Will I lose my hair?

While this may not be your biggest concern, it’s not vain to worry about your appearance during chemotherapy. Sometimes just knowing you look all right can make a huge difference to how you feel. Most cancer support associations offer advice and recommendations to women who are looking for a boost.
Pink Hope offers some tips to enhance your appearance and health during chemotherapy.
Some women may find it helpful going to make-up and skin care workshops. These workshops are held in a fun, friendly and supportive environment. Workshops can show you how to wear a beautiful scarf or choose the perfect wig. They may also be a good place to meet other women going through a similar situation to you.
Look Good, Feel Better is an organisation (NSW) dedicated to helping women, men and teens find their self-confidence during chemotherapy. On their website, women share personal stories and experiences.

Questions for my cancer care team

Being diagnosed with cancer raises so many questions. Your cancer specialist may have already answered some of your questions. You may have more questions and new questions will come up with time – this is normal and understandable. It can be helpful to create a list of all your questions to go through with your cancer care team.
We’ve spoken to other women who have been diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer to find out what information they found most useful soon after their diagnosis. We’ve used their answers to create a list of questions you may want to ask your cancer care team.
Questions For My Cancer Care Team – Newly Diagnosed Breast or Ovarian Cancer

I had breast or ovarian cancer

You’ve been given the all-clear. You are cancer free. But relief for the present may be mixed with anxiety for the future. This is completely normal and understandable. It is just as important now to understand your future risk and stay informed about your options.

Will the cancer come back?

Nobody wants cancer to return. Whether it comes back will depend on a few factors, including the stage at which it was found and if it has spread (metastasised). Of course, surgery and treatments aim to eliminate cancer but for some people, cancer comes back. Because each person’s situation is different, your cancer care team are the best people to speak to about your future risk of cancer. They will also be able to advise you on your options to help monitor and manage your risk.

How do I reduce my risks of recurrence?

Although we cannot completely control our risk of cancer or its recurrence, living a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of both. The measures to minimise risk of the cancer returning are the same as those for reducing the risk of developing cancer in the first place. Cancer Australia recommends that we:

  • eat a balanced, nutritious diet
  • be sun smart
  • limit alcohol intake
  • maintain a healthy body weight
  • be a non-smoker
  • take regular exercise.

Cancer Council Australia also offer a website dedicated to helping people lower their risk of cancer.
For cancer survivors, having regular follow-ups with their cancer care team and following medical advice are especially important.

I have early menopause. What can I do?

Managing the effects of induced menopause continues after cancer has gone.
Pink Hope offers some information about treatment-induced menopause.
Cancer Australia offers a helpful guide for women who have experienced induced menopause after treatment for breast cancer. It talks about menopause and breast cancer, symptoms, management options and long-term health effects and offers further information sources.

Will genetic testing help me?

Being a survivor of breast or ovarian cancer, you may already have been tested for inherited gene mutations. But if you haven’t and you’re considering genetic tests to help predict risk of breast or ovarian cancer recurrence, Pink Hope offers information about about genetic counselling that may be helpful. You can also submit questions to Pink Hope’s genetic counsellor.
HealthDirect provide some general information about genetic testing and the Australian Government’s Australian Law Reform Commission offers further information including access, cost, availability and referral procedures for genetic testing.
The Centre for Genetics Education provides services for diagnosis, genetic counselling and testing. They also offers fact sheets, pamphlets and other helpful resources.
Just like with other medical procedures, you may have both publicly and privately funded options available to you for genetic testing. Refer to Pink Hope’s guide to public and private Family Cancer Clinics and genetic testing in Australia.

Breast reconstruction surgery

Having breast reconstruction surgery is a very personal decision. And just like any other medical procedure, it requires research and thought before going ahead.
Your doctor or oncologist may be a good starting point. But it is understandable that some women may want to consider the option on their own before discussing it with others. Reputable websites are a useful source of reliable information:

Questions for my cancer care team

The questions don’t just stop when the cancer is gone. Old questions are often just replaced with new and different questions about the future and ‘what next’. It can be helpful to create a list of all your questions to go through with your cancer care team.
We’ve spoken to other women who have been given the all-clear after treatment for breast or ovarian cancer, to find out what information they found most useful at this point. We’ve used their answers to create a list of questions you may want to ask your cancer care team.
Questions For My Cancer Care Team – Breast or Ovarian Cancer Survivor

Where can I go for more support?

Breast cancer or ovarian cancer, current or past diagnosis – that list of questions still feels endless.
It is important to keep in mind that your doctor or oncologist is a reliable source of information, especially for your individual needs and questions. Your health professionals are there to help, so please don’t hesitate to turn to them for information and advice.
But the support of other people who are going through, or have been through, similar situations can be equally as important. You may find support groups helpful because this support comes from the experiences of other women like you, not from a doctor or a pamphlet. And because you may discover that others have the same fears and questions as you.
Most cancer support groups have online forums or telephone support, and many run a closed-group Facebook page.
Below we’ve listed some support groups you may find helpful.

Breast and ovarian cancer support groups

  • Pink Hope offers peer support programs for people with breast and ovarian cancer through closed Facebook groups or by telephone. It’s up to you how much you wish to interact and there is also an option to join a state or national group.
  • Cancer Council Australia offers access to several local online support groups. Just select your state or territory to find a group appropriate to you. There is advice for carers too.
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