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Living with secondary breast cancer

Living with secondary breast cancer can bring up lots of concerns. Explore our information on emotional, physical and practical topics, from money and work needs, to relationships.

1. Emotional concerns

Most people with find their mood is affected by many things. Symptoms of the cancer, side effects from treatment, thoughts about the future, issues at home or the impact of the disease on relationships can all have an effect.

Feelings of sadness and loss are common. Suddenly you’re facing an uncertain future and your life plans and goals have changed.

People around you may encourage you to be positive and to ‘fight’ the cancer. For some people, adopting a ‘fighting spirit’ enables them to cope with their diagnosis. But it’s hard to be positive all the time and pressure from other people can sometimes make you feel inadequate and guilty.

For many people, the uncertainty of living with secondary breast cancer can be the hardest part.

Some people find living in the present and making plans from day to day easier than looking ahead. Others find that planning for the future helps them to feel more in control.

With the right information and support, many people feel more confident about how to cope and make decisions about their care and treatment.

If you need help talk to your treatment team. You can also use our support services especially developed for people with secondary breast cancer, or call our helpline to speak to one of our nurses.

Anxiety, stress and depression

There will probably be times when you’re anxious or stressed.

Find out about ways to help with stress and anxiety, including self-help techniques and talking therapies.

If negative thoughts are affecting your day-to-day life and don’t go away within a few weeks or keep coming back, it may indicate that you’re depressed.

Find out more about low mood and depression, including how to spot the signs and the treatments available.

2. Physical concerns

A diagnosis of secondary breast cancer and its treatment can mean you have a number of different symptoms and side effects.

Your treatment team or team can offer expert advice and help on how to control them.

You can also read our information about dealing with side effects of:

Coping with symptoms of the cancer

It may be a long time before you develop any symptoms from the cancer which have an effect on your daily life.

The symptoms you have can depend on the areas of the body the cancer has spread to. However, symptoms like fatigue are often experienced wherever the cancer is.

Common symptoms of secondary breast cancer include:

  • Pain – most cancer-related pain can be controlled effectively. Find out more about pain control for secondary breast cancer
  • Fatigue – cancer-related fatigue is one of the most common symptoms experienced by people with secondary breast cancer. There are a number of ways to manage fatigue
  • Breathlessness – find out about controlling breathlessness on our secondary breast cancer in the lung page

You can find out more about managing these and other symptoms in our information on secondary breast cancer in the bone, liver, lung and brain.

3. Practical concerns

It can often feel as though there’s a lot of information available about your breast cancer, but much less about where practical support is available.

Examples of things you might need help with include:

  • Household tasks
  • Looking after pets
  • Shopping
  • Transport to or from hospital appointments

While family and friends may offer some practical help, this may not be enough, especially if you live alone or don’t have close family or friends nearby.

Regardless of the amount of support you have, people you don’t know that well are often willing to help. They may be neighbours, colleagues, friends of friends or members of a religious or social group you are part of.

Local services

It can be useful to know about support services you can access to help you maintain your quality of life. Voluntary services, such as the British Red Cross and the Carers Trust, can provide practical support in many areas.

Your treatment team, GP, social worker or local cancer information centre may be able to tell you about other sources of practical support.

4. Money and work

Employment and money can be big worries after a cancer diagnosis. For many people, work is important for financial reasons. But it can also be important for social reasons because it gives a sense of purpose or because someone wants to carry on as normally as possible.

Read our information about financial support and benefits when you have cancer, and work and breast cancer.

5. Relationships, family and friends

A diagnosis of secondary breast cancer can affect your relationship with those closest to you, and many people worry how their loved ones will cope.

Partners

If you have a partner, they will probably experience many of the same emotions as you.

Every relationship is different and the concerns and needs of partners differ widely. However, they’ll be worried about you being ill and what your cancer means for your relationship now and in the future.

Help and support are available for partners. Your treatment team, palliative team or local cancer centre can tell you what’s available in your area.

Although not specifically about secondary breast cancer, our information for partners has some useful tips.

Partners who are also carers may want to look at our information on caring for someone with secondary breast cancer.

Family and friends

It can be painful to tell those around you about your diagnosis when you’re struggling to come to terms with it yourself.

You may be overwhelmed by the support and concern from those close to you.

However, some people may find it particularly difficult to cope with. They may be worried about what’s going to happen to you and frightened about you dying. It can also make them think about their own death. All these things may affect how people relate to you.

Often people simply don’t know what to say or how to behave.

You may feel friends and family don’t understand the support you need. If you can talk to them about how you’re feeling and what you need from them, they can begin to understand how best to support you. If you can share your goals and wishes, they may be able to help you make them a reality and enjoy helping you achieve them.

Children

If you have children or grandchildren, they may have already seen you go through treatment for primary breast cancer.

How you tell them that the cancer has come back will depend on how you managed this when you were first diagnosed, and how you and your family deal with intimate or serious issues.

If younger children are not told what’s happening they can become scared and confused. They can sense that something is wrong and may notice changes in how you look and behave or overhear conversations between adults.

How much children can understand about secondary breast cancer will depend on their age. Young children are more likely to ask direct, difficult questions that adults avoid, such as: ‘Are you going to die?’.

Even if your children are adults, they may find it hard to take in what you’ve told them and to respond straight away. They may need time to think about what you’ve said. Some may want to know a lot, others may not want to know much at all about the cancer and its treatment.

Some children find it helpful to know they can talk to you, whatever their age. Young children and adolescents may also want to talk with another trusted adult.

If needed, extra emotional and practical support for children is often available through schools, palliative care services, social workers, local services or family liaison officers.

6. Other needs and concerns

Diet

Knowing what to eat while having treatment for secondary breast cancer can be difficult. Your appetite and taste may change, or you may put on or lose weight.

Research evidence about diet and cancer can be confusing. There’s no scientific evidence that people with secondary breast cancer should follow a special diet, or that a particular diet can make a difference to your outlook. However, a healthy, balanced diet can help give you energy and improve your mood. What this looks like for you will depend on your individual needs.

If you need help, you can talk to your treatment team, or ask to speak to a dietitian for specialist advice.

Read our information about diet and secondary breast cancer.

Physical activity

People who exercise, even gently, during treatment for secondary breast cancer may tolerate treatments better and experience less pain, sickness, problems sleeping and fatigue.

However, you may need to take a little extra care when exercising depending on which areas are affected by secondary breast cancer. Before starting any exercise it’s important to discuss it with your treatment team.

When thinking about exercise you’ll need to consider:

  • Your current treatment
  • Any limits to your mobility
  • Any other health conditions you have

This means you’ll get the most out of the activity you choose, while also making sure you don’t cause any injury or have any discomfort.

Social concerns

Managing side effects, making choices about treatment and having ongoing tests can take up a lot of time. So it can sometimes be difficult to continue to do the things you’ve always done.

For some people, a diagnosis of secondary breast cancer can affect how they relate to the people around them and in their community, as well as their ability to socialise and do the things they enjoy. They may choose or need to avoid certain people, places or gatherings.

However, withdrawing from your social life may make you feel more isolated or that your diagnosis is stopping you doing the things you enjoy. Social and emotional issues can be difficult to talk about but can lead to problems like depression.

Keeping connected with people and taking up opportunities to join in activities, when possible, can help increase your confidence and improve your sense of emotional wellbeing.

You might find it helpful to talk with other people about how their diagnosis has affected this aspect of their lives and how they manage this.

You can connect with other people through our online discussion forum, or Living with Secondary Breast Cancer groups - simply scroll to the bottom of this page for more information.

Religion and faith

If you have a religious faith, you may find that it helps you cope with your diagnosis. Or this may be a time when you question your faith.

You may have never had a religious belief or be unsure what you believe, but find yourself thinking and questioning now.

Whether you’re sure in your beliefs or looking for answers, you may choose to talk to a religious leader of your chosen faith.

Language and cultural concerns 

Good communication can help reduce anxiety. This includes being able to get the right information and support, and making sure that language and communication needs don’t stop people receiving the same quality of care as other people.

If information is needed in a different language, hospitals can arrange translator services at appointments. This can help patients, carers and healthcare professionals get the most out of the consultations, and can make sure accurate and important information about treatment and care is provided. Some hospitals also provide written translation services.

Interpreting services such as sign language, braille or large text documents can also be provided for patients with sensory difficulties.

It’s important that your treatment team are aware of your wishes so they can respect these when discussing and planning your treatment and care. These may be part of your cultural or religious background or your individual personality or beliefs. For example, you may want to be addressed in a particular way, or ask that particular medicines or blood products are not given to you.

7. Holistic needs assessment (HNA)

What is an HNA?

A holistic needs assessment (HNA) is a discussion with someone in your treatment team. It helps you to think about your needs and concerns across all areas of your life and find possible solutions.

Macmillan Cancer Support have information and video looking at HNAs.

8. Getting the support you need

Everyone affected by breast cancer can turn to us for support. Whoever you are, and whatever your experience of breast cancer, our free services are always here for you. The whole way through. 

You can speak to our breast care nurses and highly trained staff on our helpline - please see further below.

Our forum is a great way to get support from other people with secondary breast cancer.

We understand the huge impact being diagnosed with secondary breast cancer can have.

Our Living with Secondary Breast Cancer groups - please see below - can provide you with specialist information and the chance to share experiences, understanding and support with other people dealing with the uncertainty and challenges secondary breast cancer brings.

Sessions are available online and face-to-face at various locations.

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Quality assurance

Last reviewed in August 2022. The next planned review begins in August 2024.

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