Empowering coping strategies for those facing breast cancer later in life

Feb 05, 2024
The journey after a breast cancer diagnosis is complex, but knowledge, support, and proactive steps can ease the way. Source: Getty Images.

Life often presents us with challenges, and while receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in the later stages may seem like a formidable hurdle, it’s important to remember that hope can still shine through.

Facing a breast cancer diagnosis, especially for individuals aged 60 and above, can be difficult. However, despite the unique challenges that come with it, there is an abundance of resources and strategies available to navigate this difficult time.

It’s heartening to know that, on the recently recognised World Cancer Day, we can bring attention to the strength and resilience of those facing breast cancer later in life. The average age for a breast cancer diagnosis is 62, and with 80 percent of cases occurring in people aged over 50, there is a growing awareness of the need for support and understanding.

In shedding light on this important topic, Starts at 60 recently had the privilege of speaking with McGrath Foundation Chief Nurse, Kerry Patford. Her insights not only provide valuable information but also inspire hope by highlighting the various support services and coping strategies available for those navigating the challenges of a later-in-life breast cancer diagnosis.

Guidance and support for navigating life after a breast cancer diagnosis

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis brings a wave of challenges and emotions. Coping with this life-altering news is a journey marked by various obstacles. However, it’s essential to remember that you don’t have to face these challenges alone.

Support is available from various sources, including friends, family, support groups, and medical professionals. Understanding your emotions, making informed decisions about treatment, and taking care of your physical and mental well-being are key components of this journey.

“For anyone going through breast cancer, you can feel lost within a cancer care system and for older people in particular, feeling that they are invisible in a fast-paced environment,” Patford explains.

“Often, we see people over 60 have multiple care roles, whether it be their parents, partners, children, or grandchildren. Because they are the carers, they may find the disruption to their responsibilities causes them more distress than the diagnosis itself.

“Breast cancer treatments can be intense and go for extensive periods of time, making people feel that they are not able to provide the care and support that they would like to others. We know that there are services and supports available and having the access to these services makes all the difference.”

Although facing numerous obstacles post-diagnosis, there exists a multitude of supportive resources ready to assist in navigating this demanding period.

“Being under the care of a breast care nurse ensures that people can access services and get care that is tailored to the individual and their needs,” Patford explains.

“Accessing a local breast care nurse as soon as you have a definitive diagnosis of breast cancer is incredibly important. Research shows people who are connected with a McGrath Breast Care Nurse within the first week of treatment have a better experience and outcomes.”

Discovering the nearest McGrath Breast Care Nurse is just a click away, at www.mcgrathfoundation.com.au. A doctor’s referral is not necessary; you can reach out on your own, and the services are provided free of charge.

In addition, for those aged 65 and over, Patford advises registering with My Aged Care. Furthermore, if applicable, exploring the services provided by Carer’s Gateway and the Department of Veterans Affairs can be highly beneficial. Your local GP is another invaluable resource to ensure you have access to the necessary support and services within your community.

Understanding your treatment options

Understanding your treatment is crucial for managing and coping with a medical condition, as it empowers you to know what to expect and make informed decisions about your healthcare journey. When you comprehend the details of your treatment plan, you can mentally prepare for potential side effects, recovery periods, and lifestyle adjustments.

This knowledge enables you to actively participate in your own care, ask pertinent questions to your healthcare providers, and seek additional support if needed. It also helps you set realistic expectations, reducing anxiety and uncertainty during a challenging time. In essence, knowledge about your treatment is a key ingredient in taking control of your health and working towards the best possible outcomes.

“The treatments for individuals diagnosed with breast cancer do not differ for people over the age of 60. Considerations of co-existing illnesses and personal wellness are taken into account for everyone undergoing cancer treatments, regardless of age,” Patford says.

“There will be some things that are more relevant to people over 60, such as monitoring cardiovascular health, and some that are less relevant, such as fertility preservation.”

The journey of breast cancer treatment encompasses various stages and considerations, according to the Cancer Council some of these can include:


Staging checks the breast cancer’s size and if it spread to the nearby lymph nodes under the arm. CT scans of the chest, liver, and bone help identify common sites where breast cancer may have spread.


In cases of localised breast cancer, the most comprehensive surgical choice involves removing both the breast and nearby lymph nodes under the arm. When only a part of the breast is removed, it’s known as breast-conserving surgery, or a lumpectomy. Typically, radiotherapy follows breast-conserving surgery.

If the entire breast is removed, it’s called a mastectomy.


Chemotherapy can be employed to reduce cancer size before surgery, especially when there’s a high risk of cancer returning or if the cancer comes back after surgery or radiation therapy. It’s also considered when the cancer is HER2 positive or doesn’t respond to hormone therapy.

Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, is suggested after breast-conserving surgery to eliminate any hidden cancer cells. It’s also advised if lymph nodes under the arm were removed and there’s a chance the cancer could come back in that region.

In certain cases, radiation therapy can be used after a mastectomy if there’s a risk of cancer returning in the chest area.

Hormone therapy

Hormone therapy involves medications that lower the levels of female hormones in your body. This helps to halt or slow down the growth of cancer cells that respond to hormones. The specific hormone therapy you receive depends on factors like your age, the type of breast cancer, and whether you have reached menopause.

Targeted therapy

Precision medications focus on specific targets within cancer cells. At the moment, these drugs are effective solely for individuals with HER2-positive breast cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms of breast cancer?

After understanding the challenges of coping with a breast cancer diagnosis, it is essential to stay vigilant and proactive by recognising the signs and symptoms of the condition. While managing the emotional and physical aspects post-diagnosis is crucial, staying informed about the early warning signs is equally important.

Being aware of subtle changes in your body, such as

  • lumps
  • changes in breast size or shape
  • skin dimpling
  • nipple discharge,
  • or persistent pain can potentially indicate the presence of breast cancer.

By staying alert to these symptoms, individuals can seek medical attention promptly, increasing the likelihood of early detection and effective treatment.

Navigating life after a diagnosis is about more than just coping—it’s also about staying ahead, staying informed, and advocating for your own health to ensure the best possible outcome.

Regular self-exams and mammograms can help detect breast cancer early, when it is most treatable, therefore it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, as well as any changes in the way the breasts look or feel.

“If you notice any changes in your breast (including men) then get these investigated immediately,” Patford explains.

“The changes can be skin thickening or dimpling, a rash, nipple discharge, pain, swelling in the arm pit, or a lump. BreastScreen is available to women every two years, even after the age of 74 when the reminder letters stop coming.

“You can also use the McGrath Foundation’s three steps to self-checking.”

Patford suggests self-checking every month around the same time so you remember.

‘Look, Feel, Learn’ is about checking your breasts in three simple steps:

1. Look – at the shape and appearance of your breasts and nipples in the mirror with
your hands by your sides. Raise your arms above your head and have another look.

2. Feel – all of your breasts and nipples looking for anything that isn’t normal for you.
Feel from your collarbone to below the bra-line and under your armpit too.

3. Learn – what is normal for you! Breasts come in all different shapes and sizes, so get
to know your normal. See your doctor if you notice any changes.

You can find the ‘Look, Feel, Learn’ information on checking your breasts on the McGrath Foundation website.

Strategies for breast cancer prevention

Early detection is crucial, but prevention can be a powerful strategy. Engaging in a healthy lifestyle, maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and limiting alcohol consumption can significantly lower your risk of developing breast cancer.

Regular breast self-exams and routine mammograms for early detection are also part of the prevention toolkit. Remember, taking steps to reduce your risk and staying informed about prevention measures can play a fundamental role in safeguarding your health and ensuring the best possible outcomes on your breast cancer journey.

“To reduce your risk of breast cancer, it is important to make sure you stay physically active, limit alcohol intake, maintain ideal body weight, eat a well-balanced diet, and avoid cigarettes,” Patford explains.

“Breast cancer that is caught at an earlier stage is often easier to treat, leading to much better patient outcomes.”

The journey after a breast cancer diagnosis is complex, but knowledge, support, and proactive steps can ease the way. Understanding symptoms and being vigilant through regular self-exams are crucial for early detection. Prevention is equally important, with a focus on a healthy lifestyle and regular mammograms.

By actively engaging in your healthcare, staying informed, and taking proactive measures, you empower yourself and enhance your chances of a positive outcome. Your health is in your hands, and with knowledge and awareness, you can face breast cancer challenges with strength and resilience, moving toward a healthier future.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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