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Monitoring Your Treatment FAQs

Updated May 10, 2010

How will I know if the treatments I’m getting for metastatic breast cancer are working?

What are the benefits of getting tested periodically to see if my treatment is working?

I get very anxious every time I have a test to see if my treatment is working. What can I do to relieve that anxiety?

What does it mean when my blood markers go up? One of my doctors says I should start a new treatment but another one says it doesn’t mean anything.

How will I know that the results of my tests are reliable?

Q: How will I know if the treatments I’m getting for metastatic breast cancer are working?

A: Your doctor will order different tests to monitor the cancer and see whether the treatment/s you’re getting are stopping or slowing the cancer’s progression. These tests may include:

Important points to remember about these tests include:

  • There is no single test that works for everyone and that perfectly measures whether or not the cancer is progressing.
  • In each case, different tests may be useful, depending on where the cancer is, what tests were used to detect it in the first place (what worked best in the past may work well for follow-up), and the expertise of the testing center where you get the tests done.
  • Discuss with your doctor what he or she thinks the appropriate tests are for you. If you have any questions or doubts about the tests you’re getting, or how the test results are interpreted, ask questions or get a second opinion.

Reviewed by Clifford A. Hudis, MD

Q: What are the benefits of getting tested periodically to see if my treatment is working?

A: Periodic testing during treatment can prevent you from suffering needlessly from the side effects of a treatment that isn’t working. Your doctor can make sure your quality of life is preserved, and that side effects are minimized, by only using treatments that are effective.

You can help your doctor evaluate whether your current treatment is effective by communicating your symptoms or side effects. Your doctor may suggest some tests that will be useful to see if your cancer is responding to treatment. If tests show that your treatment isn’t working, your doctor may switch you to a different treatment that may work better.

The number of treatment options for metastatic breast cancer is continually increasing, and there’s no single treatment or series of treatments that’s best for everyone. Every person’s cancer is different, and how a cancer responds to a specific treatment may also change over time. Monitoring your health will enable your doctor to deliver the best possible care.

Reviewed by Clifford A. Hudis, MD

Q: I get very anxious every time I have a test to see if my treatment is working. What can I do to relieve that anxiety?

A: The longer you have to wait for test results, the more anxious you are likely to feel. So try to avoid being tested before a holiday or the weekend, which can delay reporting of your test results. Talk to your doctor about your worries and ask how you can get your test results as quickly as possible.

When you are feeling anxious, try using meditation, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques to relieve your anxiety. You may also find it helpful to keep busy during the waiting period—if you feel well enough, plan activities with your family or friends. In some cases, you may want to talk to your doctor about the possibility of taking anti-anxiety medications during stressful times.

Reviewed by Elyse Spatz Caplan, MA

Q: What does it mean when my blood markers go up? One of my doctors says I should start a new treatment but another one says it doesn’t mean anything.

A: Blood tumor markers are substances that are normally present in small amounts in your blood. Cancer cells can sometimes make these substances, so when the amount of these substances rises, it means the cancer might be progressing. But in many cases, one test is not enough to give a complete picture. Sometimes blood tumor markers go up, but an MRI or CT test shows that the cancer has actually gotten smaller. If your tumor markers have gone up, discuss with your doctor what other tests you can get to see if the cancer really is progressing. Generally, doctors who use markers (and not all do) will try to monitor trends, rather than accept a single increase as evidence that a treatment has stopped working.

Reviewed by Clifford A. Hudis, MD

Q: How will I know that the results of my tests are reliable?

A: If you have any doubts about the results of any of your tests, discuss them with your doctor. If you are still not sure, do not hesitate to get a second opinion before making a decision to stop a treatment or switch to another.

Reviewed by Elyse Spatz Caplan, MA

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