Young breast cancer survivors suffer more long-term after effects

Younger women who survive breast cancer have particular problems in coping with the physical and psychological after effects, even ten years later, a scientist said today. Speaking at the 4th European Breast Cancer Conference in Hamburg, Germany, Dr. Lonneke van de Poll-Franse, from the Comprehensive Cancer Centre South in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, said that there was a growing need for special programmes to be tailored to the needs of long-term cancer survivors.

Dr. van de Poll-Franse studied questionnaire responses received from 183 patients who had been diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago. She found that 65% of the women were still receiving specialist care and that 52% had specific complaints, the majority with arm problems (35%) and fatigue (10%). Age at diagnosis made a significant difference, with women who were over 50 when they were diagnosed reporting far fewer problems than those who were younger – 44% as opposed to 71% among the younger women. This difference was independent of factors such as the amount of chemotherapy given to each patient.

“Looking at fatigue, for example”, said van de Dr. van de Poll-Franse, “only 4% of women who were 50 and over when diagnosed were still reporting it 10 years later, whereas among younger women 22% were still having problems with unusual tiredness. We don’t know for certain why this is, but think it is most likely to be related to the fact that women over 50 are nearer the end of their working lives, with more time to spend on themselves and on maintaining their family relationships. They are also less likely to have continuing childcare responsibilities.”

The women studied said that they were happy to be followed by specialists, but with breast cancer survival on the increase and a continuing shortage of oncologists in many countries, this might lead to a situation where certain new patients will be neglected at the expense of long-term survivors.

“This specific group needs help in the form of the kind of programmes available to newly diagnosed patients”, said Dr. van de Poll-Franse. “Nowadays all kinds of care programmes exist to deal with the physical and emotional problems associated with a new diagnosis of breast cancer. It is important that we make the same kind of facilities available to breast cancer survivors, who, despite being free of disease, can still suffer greatly with both physical and psychosocial problems.”

This study was financed by the Dutch Cancer Society.

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