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Beating Breast Cancer But Still Paying a Price

Women who survive breast cancer often experience lingering physical and emotional symptoms that go untreated, new research suggests.

Ninety-two percent of long-term breast cancer survivors report at least three untreated symptoms for which they need assistance, according to the study.

The most common unmet needs are achy joints, fatigue and weight gain — each affecting about one in four survivors in the study.

Survivors living with more unmet needs are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression, the study found.

Although the study involved just over 100 mostly white and college-educated women at one cancer center, the findings may be important for the nation’s 2.8 million breast cancer survivors, the study authors suggest.

When you extrapolate these results to the larger population of survivors, “it gets a lot worse very quickly,” said lead author Steven Palmer. “You end up talking about hundreds of thousands of people with unmet needs in the community.”

Palmer, a research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, said the study highlights “a real missed opportunity to improve outcomes.”

Advancements in breast cancer treatment have greatly improved survival. Today, 89 percent of patients can expect to live five or more years, Palmer and his colleagues noted.

Yet, the study authors suspect that persistent physical and mental health symptoms may be the “price for this survival.”

There are lots of possible reasons why women aren’t getting adequate symptom relief, including a shortage of medical oncologists, poor continuity of care for survivorship issues and limited time during office visits, Palmer explained.

“There are focuses that are pressed in a visit, and they’re going be on ‘How are you doing with maintaining your tamoxifen schedule? Have you had your mammograms on time?’ ” he said.

“My guess is that we pay more attention to survival than we do to what it actually means in terms of long-term costs,” Palmer observed.

Doctors used to view these long-term side effects as a “cost” of treatment, said Dr. Kerin Adelson, who wasn’t involved in the study. She is a medical oncologist specializing in breast cancer at Yale-New Haven Health in Connecticut.

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