More people are now living with and beyond breast cancer than ever before. Forty years ago, only one in two women would live five years or more after a breast cancer diagnosis. Thanks to progress in research and care, it’s now almost 9 in 10.
This is incredible progress. But now we need to make sure people living with or beyond breast cancer are supported to live well. Here we cover how research is looking to address it.
The impact of breast cancer
It's thought up to 90% of women who survive breast cancer have unexpected long-term effects on their mental health. These need to be addressed to improve their quality of life.
Stress, anxiety and depression
Researchers studied activities such as music therapy, meditation, stress management and yoga to reduce anxiety and stress linked to breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Yoga has been shown to improve quality of life, as well as reduce fatigue and sleep disturbances. There's also some evidence it can reduce depression and anxiety in women diagnosed with breast cancer.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age can be especially challenging. Researchers from Los Angeles looking to help younger women with breast cancer presented their work at San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in 2020. They tested mindfulness meditation techniques, alongside seminars and discussions focused on life after breast cancer. Researchers found that women who took part in mindfulness meditation had reduced anxiety, sleep disturbances and hot flushes.
We also offer support courses specifically designed for younger women which have many of the elements that were shown to help.
Sexuality and intimacy
Many women report having difficulties with sex during and after breast cancer. They involve physical, psychological and relationship factors. Despite this, very few people feel comfortable talking about it.
Group therapies, physical activity therapy and cosmetic or beauty treatments are being researched to see if they could help with issues stemming from body image and low self-esteem. A recent study found that group cognitive behavioural therapy could help. It enabled people to talk about a range of topics, including the thoughts about their bodies and the relationships and intimacy with their partner. This helped with reducing anxiety and improving body image and self-esteem.
Long-term treatments and side effects
Some breast cancer treatments can last five years or longer. Many women find it difficult to keep taking their treatment due to the long duration and difficult side effects. Without appropriate support, it can be difficult to finish the full course of treatment.
Research is looking to find the best ways to help people adhere to treatments such as tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors. Researchers we fund are looking at whether an interactive self-help guide will provide support on how to deal with challenging side effects.
Fertility is a key issue for women diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age. Progress has been made to understand how some women can be supported to have children after diagnosis, but some unanswered questions remain.
A study being conducted in Italy is looking at counselling women on available options for preserving fertility before treatment as well as supporting women who have successfully become pregnant after breast cancer diagnosis. It will help to highlight the most important issues related to pregnancy and fertility.
It is also important that we understand the best way to tailor treatment for pregnant women.
Research is investigating whether treatment could be tailored by looking at the molecular biology of a woman’s breast cancer to see if treatment can be postponed until after the pregnancy. Researchers also now have more data on breast cancer during pregnancy to ensure the best outcomes for both mother and child.
Supporting people with secondary breast cancer
Women with incurable secondary breast cancer face unique challenges linked to their diagnosis and treatment. Scientists are looking for ways to better support these women.
Different types of psychological therapy, including cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy and individual therapy, were investigated to improve quality of life. Such programmes were found to be effective at reducing psychological symptoms. However, more research is needed to fully understand how best to address the impact for people living with secondary breast cancer. Researchers we fund are working to develop an online resource that will support women with secondary breast cancer and help them manage their condition.
We also provide a range of services, including online support groups, specifically designed for women with secondary breast cancer.
Importance of lifestyle and exercise
Making lifestyle changes and maintaining them can be difficult, especially so after a breast cancer diagnosis. Research has shown that physical symptoms of breast cancer and lack of motivation or self-confidence are the biggest barriers when it comes to physical activity. Providing programs that support women to take part in regular physical exercise may be the solution to these issues.
A recent study looked at how effective wellness coaching could be in encouraging women to increase their physical activity after breast cancer. Participants were visited once by a wellness coach. The visit was followed by four telephone calls over 12 weeks, and 12 weekly emails containing wellness recommendations.
The researchers found that participants had a significant increase in their quality of life, driven by increase in physical wellbeing. Forty percent of participants also achieved a 3% body-weight loss.
Importantly, the majority of the women taking part said they found the coaching extremely helpful.
Our Moving Forward Online courses are there to help anyone who needs support to adjust to life after treatment for primary breast cancer.
Other results from studies such as the ABLE trial have found there was a high willingness among people with secondary breast cancer to participate in a physical exercise programme. The unsupervised programme included a goal of a number of steps to reach per day which was personalised by a physical activity instructor. Over six months, the participants showed significant improvements in physical fitness, with low numbers quitting and high numbers staying in the programme.
Programmes like this could be the answer to encouraging an active lifestyle for people with secondary breast cancer.
There has been great progress in breast cancer treatment. More work is still needed to ensure people who are living with or beyond breast cancer can have the highest quality of life possible. We’re proud to be funding research that is contributing to this.