October was established as breast cancer awareness month in 1985 and, since that time, improved screening and treatment significantly improved survival rates. In fact, breast cancer survivors make up the largest group of cancer survivors in North America. After treatment ends, these survivors must manage their continued surveillance, long-term and late effects, and general health more proactively than people never diagnosed with cancer. Primary care physicians often provide survivorship care to cancer patients and a recent study, “Caring for survivors of breast cancer: perspective of the primary care physician,” identified the confidence of primary care physicians to provide this complex care.
The article in Current Oncology, surveyed almost 600 primary care physicians who treat at least one breast cancer survivor, though more than half treat more than 10. These physicians were most confident in managing surveillance for cancer recurrence. However, they were least confident in providing counseling for body image, sexual health, and cancer-specific side effects, such as lymphedema. In addition, few of these primary care physicians are comfortable discussing family planning with the breast cancer survivors in their practice.
The survey also found that most physicians are happy with the oncology-primary care communication when a patient leaves the care of oncologists to work with their primary care physicians after treatment ends. According to the survey, when these physicians seek out more information about breast cancer, they prefer in-person educational events and websites but are least likely to read primary academic literature and guidelines, probably due to time restrictions. Knowing that online and in person education is preferred can be used to develop continuing education programs in the future.
As breast cancer survival rates continue to rise, the medical community must adapt to treat the long-term health of these survivors. Research provides valuable information to guide education for health care providers who continue to see these survivors’ decades after diagnosis. Furthermore, it highlights the increased need to educate primary care physicians on fertility options for cancer survivors.