Breast Cancer Treatment And Recovery Times

Breast Cancer Treatment Schedule, Time Management, and Recovery

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If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, you're probably wondering how long treatment will take.  How long do the individual treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy take, and what are the average recovery times?  How long will it be until you are back to normal?

When You're Newly Diagnosed and Looking at the Calendar

A diagnosis of breast cancer can really disrupt your life -- emotions, physical health, finances, and relationships may be affected.

When you were diagnosed you may have been working full-time, raising a family, or pursuing your dreams. Your calendar was full and your life was busy. Suddenly, your schedule is invaded by a raft of appointments with surgeons, oncologists, nurses, technicians, and therapists. You instantly have a new job -- getting through breast cancer treatment. Let's look at how long treatments and recovery can take, and talk about keeping track of your time.

Balance The Demands Of Life And Treatment

If you are working outside the home, you may need to know how much sick leave time to ask for. Be sure you know the sick leave policy at your job, and give your supervisor the best estimate you can. Remember that if you hit a snag during treatment, you'll be out longer than you had planned, so be sure to let your boss know what's going on.

Keep a calendar in your health notebook to keep track of all appointments.

Don't overbook yourself -- especially on treatment and recovery days. Ask for help and delegate tasks while you are recovering.

Estimated Breast Cancer Surgery And Recovery Times

The amount of time it will take you to recover from surgery will depend upon the surgery you have, and whether you have a sentinel lymph node biopsy or axillary node dissection.

Lumpectomy: 7 - 14 Days Recovery
A lumpectomy is an outpatient procedure, so you'll be going home the same day of surgery. You may have surgical drains in place, so don't hurry back to work. If you have lymph nodes removed during your lumpectomy, healing will take longer than one week. Get someone else to do the driving and heavy lifting, and postpone your housecleaning, sports, and gardening.

Mastectomy: 1 - 3 Weeks Recovery
A mastectomy is an inpatient procedure, so you'll be in the hospital one or two days after surgery. You will have surgical drains in place for 5-7 days to help with healing -- those will be removed during a follow-up appointment with your surgeon. Barring complications, your incisions should heal within three to four weeks.

If you have lymph nodes removed during your mastectomy, healing will take longer than one week. Mastectomy is often done with immediate breast reconstruction, but that should not delay healing from surgery. Get plenty of rest and take the time to process your emotions while you recover.

Re-excision: 3 - 7 Days Recovery
Not everyone will require a re-excision if surgical margins were clear. This is an outpatient procedure that is done after a lumpectomy to ensure clear margins. You will go home after your surgery. You may have a surgical drain to manage, but it can be removed relatively quickly. Take it easy at home until your drain is no longer needed.

Breast Reconstruction: Recovery Times Vary
Because breast reconstruction can range from implants placed during a mastectomy to a free flap transplant, your recovery time will depend on the complexity of your reconstruction method. Some types of reconstruction involve two or three separate surgical procedures to complete your new breast. In case you will need radiation treatments, reconstruction may be delayed until you have completed all sessions.

Estimated Breast Cancer Chemotherapy Treatment And Recovery Times

Chemotherapy: 3 - 6 Months of Treatments
A weekly lower-dose chemotherapy schedule will be given for 12 weeks (3 months) straight. A standard chemo schedule will be given once every two or three weeks, with additional office visits for lab work and shots. So if you are having four standard cycles of chemo, treatments will take about three months to complete. For six standard cycles of chemo, treatments will take about five to six months to complete.

Each infusion will take 3-4 hours, and lab appointments should take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how busy your clinic may be. If your side effects are mild, you can return to normal activities in between each treatment, but if they are bothersome, plan on taking time off to recover.

Recovery times from chemotherapy vary with each person. Remember that chemo is a systemic treatment that will affect your entire body. You should plan on 1-3 months of recovery time per each standard dose of chemotherapy once your treatments are over.

Estimated Breast Cancer Radiation Therapy Treatment and Recovery Times

Radiation time will depend on which type of radiation treatments you will be having.  Many of the newer protocols are requiring less than the former typical 33 sessions 5 days a week continuous.

Radiation: 1 - 6 Weeks of Treatments
A standard course of breast radiation treatments after surgery is set up for every weekday for six or seven weeks. Any side effects you may have will be cumulative, so plan on taking some time to rest on weekends and at the end of treatment.

Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation (APBI) can be completed in three weeks. Brachytherapy, or internal breast radiation, can be done in five days, with mild side effects and a short recovery time.

How Long Will Breast Cancer Treatment Take Altogether?

Breast cancer treatments can take quite a while, and you may wonder how soon you will get your life back. You may need to let family, friends, or your boss know how much time you will be in treatment. Below is a table with some estimates for how long treatments could take depending on your diagnosis. Times do not include breaks between types of treatments, consultations, second opinions, additional testing and imaging studies. If you are going to have hormonal therapy (endocrine therapy) after primary treatment ends, you may be taking medication to prevent recurrence for a long as five years or longer.

An "average case" of early-stage breast cancer could take a year for diagnosis and treatment with short-term recovery. All the cases in this table assume early-stage breast cancer, with no metastasisKeep in mind that this assumes you do not have any complications due to your treatments and no early recurrence of breast cancer.

Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer will be treated and monitored differently -- treatments are given to slow the spread of metastatic breast cancer, reduce tumor size, reduce pain, and extend survival. Each case of metastatic breast cancer will require a treatment plan for the duration of the patient's life, so estimating times of treatment and recovery is done on a case-by-case basis.

About The Treatment and Recovery Table

The table below is a rough framework for some common scenarios. These cases presume a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer which is removed by surgery and then given adjuvant treatments to prevent a recurrence. There are many exceptions to the cases presented here, for example: a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer with a small tumor, clear lymph nodes, and surgical margins will be treated with 3 - 6 months of chemotherapy, while a case of low-grade ductal carcinoma in situ with a small tumor, clear lymph nodes, and surgical margins will be treated with radiation alone. In addition, the table does not include the possibility of up to 5 years or more of hormonal therapy for hormone-sensitive breast cancers. Discuss your diagnosis with your oncologist to get the most accurate picture of your overall time in treatment and recovery.

Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery Times Based on Diagnosis

Time in Treatment
and Recovery
(7 Days)
(7 Days)
 14 - 21 Days
(2 - 3 Weeks)
(7 Days)
(3-7 Days)
(3 Weeks)
 6 Weeks
(7 Days)
(3 Weeks)
(6 Cycles/6 Months)
7 - 8 Months
(7 Days)
Whole Breast
(6 Weeks)
(6 Cycles/6 Months)
8 - 9 Months
(14 Days)
(6 Cycles/6 Months)
7 - 8 Months
(21 Days)
(6 Cycles/6 Months)
7 - 8 Months
* Note: Times for treatments and recovery are estimates -- each case will vary. Times do not include breaks between types of treatments, consultations, second opinions, additional testing and imaging studies.


Moving Forward After Breast Cancer

Recovery times depend on your health before diagnosis, your body's response to treatments, lifestyle factors, and levels of physical activity during recovery. Exercising, eating a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and gradually returning to normal activities can speed your recovery, as can addressing any sleep issues you continue to have after treatment.

Emotional recovery is a more complicated process that each of us works through on our own schedule. If you feel a nagging depression or have a constant fear about recurrence, ask for help.  Studies even suggest that survival is improved in people who go through cognitive behavioral counseling, aka "talk therapy."

Most physical side effects will decrease over time as your health rebounds, but some may linger. Your body will bear scars from the battle, lymphedema and chemobrain may affect you longer than you'd like, and relationships may have changed.  We have only just recently started addressing "survivorship concerns" in people with breast cancer - such as the cognitive changes due to chemo brain, persistent fatigue chronic pain, and more.  Many cancer centers are now offering "cancer rehabilitation" which may include counseling, physical therapy, and more, to help restore your body as close as possible to where you were before cancer - or maybe even better.  It's thought that only 5% of women surviving breast cancer are currently offered this "star rehabilitation'" therapy,for cancer survivors but at least 60 to 95% could benefit.

Life after breast cancer involves change, so give yourself plenty of room and time to adjust. Survivorhood is a great place to live!


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