Battling breast cancer is often a gruelling process that is as draining emotionally as it is physically, as laden with reflections on mortality as questions about the odds of survival.
One of those questions may be: "What will life be like if I beat it?"
A new Canadian study shows that quality of life for long-term survivors who have no recurrence is, for the most part, as high as that for women with no history of the disease.
Pamela Goodwin, lead author of the study and director of Mount Sinai Hospital's Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre in Toronto, called the findings "very reassuring."
The study examined 285 patients who had surgery to remove their cancer, underwent subsequent treatment, and were living on average 13 years after their initial diagnosis with no recurrence of disease. About a quarter of the patients had a mastectomy, while the remainder had a lumpectomy.
In all, 535 women were recruited between 1989 and 1996 to participate in the study. Of the women who signed on, 123 died and 61 had recurrences. Sixty-six others were deemed ineligible for other reasons.
Researchers reviewed the results of six self-administered questionnaires measuring a variety of quality-of-life issues – from fatigue and moodiness to social functioning and sexual relationships – and compared them with those of 161 women who had never had cancer.
The cancer survivors were slightly older than the control group (62.3 years versus 59.1 years), and had less education and income, attributes commonly associated with enhancing quality of life.
But the tests revealed that, with the exception of slight deficits in cognitive abilities and finances, cancer survivors reported being as emotionally and physically healthy and vibrant as the control group. Interestingly, cancer survivors also reported experiencing fewer age-related aches and pains.
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, did not assess the reasons for the reported shortcomings in cognition and finances.
Dr. Goodwin theorized they may reflect chemotherapy treatments and decisions survivors made to focus less on career and more on family and getting healthy.
"Quality of life is all about the gap between expectations and reality," Dr. Goodwin said. "I think what this is telling us is that there can be, and often is, good life after breast cancer."