Women who survived breast cancer are welcoming the findings of a long-term Canadian study suggesting the quality of life of survivors is similar to that of women without the disease.

Dr. Pam Goodwin of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto led the study of 285 women with breast cancer who were given questionnaires about factors such as pain, fatigue and overall quality of life one year after diagnosis and then an average of 12.5 years after diagnosis.

Breast cancer

Dianne Mowat started exercising more strenuously and more often after her breast cancer diagnosis. (CBC)

A second group of women who were the same age and had never been diagnosed with breast cancer filled out the same questionnaires. "The quality of life of women with breast cancer was almost the same as the quality of life of women without breast cancer," said Goodwin.

While quality of life was impaired initially after diagnosis and treatment, there was a rapid improvement in almost all aspects the researchers considered.

There were small differences in finances and cognition between the two groups, the study's authors said.

While the long-term nature of the study and its comparison to women of the same age were a unique aspect of the study, the researchers said, the findings were consistent with other studies showing most breast cancer survivors return to work within the first year after diagnosis.

"Our results are reassuring," the study's authors concluded in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Breast cancer death rates are at the lowest levels seen since records started to be kept in the 1950s. Goodwin attributes the better outcomes to the introduction of new treatments, early diagnosis and women generally being more aware of their breast health.

Dianne Mowat, 59, of Toronto, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. Mowat said breast cancer changed her life in a positive way.

Life lessons from breast cancer

"I think my life is better, and I don't want to say I'm glad I had breast cancer because I've lost a lot of friends who've succumbed to this," Mowat said. "My quality of life has improved. I enjoy life way more than I did before."

When she returned to work, Mowat dyed her hair "toxic pink" — not for breast care awareness, but so co-workers would ask about her new hairstyle instead of dwelling on her health.

Mowat also took up dragon boat racing and pushes herself through cardio and weight routines with a trainer at a downtown gym.

At a breast cancer foodie fundraiser in Toronto this week, survivors also talked about improvements in quality of life.

Tracey Kumer came dressed as cupcake. "The fact though that I got a second chance, I am grateful for it and so I am living my life, I am living it well and healthfully and trying to take care of myself where I didn't before." 

Florianne Yeung wore a medieval-style costume with a crown. "Right now, I realize that life is too short, life is precious and I just have to enjoy life and live to the fullest. That's what breast cancer taught me."

"It just makes you more aware of life that you have to live it because we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. I eat better. I still like my glass of wine though," Joanna Chyrstal said with a laugh.

The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy