A Story of Survival
Many of us have had an unusual first date. The start of Nicole’s current relationship, though, was more unusual than most. Having met Frederik online, everything felt “just right” when she had arranged to meet him. Then she found the lumps.
Finding out you have breast cancer is never easy, but having to postpone a date because of it is something else entirely. Fortunately for Nicole, she had found in Frederik a considerate, understanding man, who was prepared to wait to give their relationship a chance.
Over the last four years, he has stood by Nicole. They now share a house and are very much in love. There is always an elephant in the room, though. Cancer is part of their everyday lives. In terms of a diagnosis, Nicole is at stage 2. This means that her tumours, which initially went away after radiation therapy, have returned. She has had lymph nodes (part of the immune system) under her arms surgically removed, to prevent the cancer from spreading. The side-effects of the medications, like fatigue, are all too obvious.
As for more drastic treatment, which might involve the removal of a breast, she is “in limbo”. She knows that it may be needed some day. “That’s the toughest part,” she says.
Being unsure about the future is a common theme in breast cancer survivors. However, recent research suggests that such adversity can lead to positive personal growth.
From cocoon to butterfly
When faced with uncertainty and doubt, people can make great psychological progress, says Dr Kate Hefferon, a psychologist at the University of East London. By interviewing a group of breast cancer survivors, she was able to find out what the effect of their illness was on their sense of identity. Learning to listen to their own bodies was key for the women in her study, who spoke of moving through phases, “from cocoon to butterfly”.
Getting used to their conditions over time and adapting their minds to new circumstances allowed these women to regain control over their feelings. This fits with Nicole’s story. Despite not knowing what the future holds, she is able to get on with her life. She has now returned to university to study science. This, in turn, has led to a better understanding of her condition.
In fact, at one of her many medical appointments, Nicole found a note in her patient file. It said “studies science, can deal with tricky numbers.” By giving her as much information as possible, the doctor was able to put her mind at rest. How doctors talk to their patients is another part of treatment which has been the subject of recent research.
The Value Of Information
As a health psychologist at the Centre for Appearance Research, Dr Diana Harcourt has studied the reactions of women who undergo the more dramatic kind of surgery – namely, mastectomy, the removal of part of all of a breat – for their cancer. One of her main findings has been that letting patients know what to expect from their operations is vital. Informing women about what is likely to happen to them, and how they might feel about it, helps them come to terms with it afterwards.
Keeping them in the loop is also important to help patients understand their treatment options in the first place. It’s no surprise that women with breast cancer take their appearance into account when considering surgery. As it turns out, what they decide depends more on how much they are informed than on how ill they are. “For some women, it’s not an issue at all,” says Dr Harcourt. “But for the others, it is not connected to how severe their diagnosis is.” Rather, Dr Harcourt’s research has shown that women’s choices, and their levels of satisfaction with those choices, are influenced by how realistic their expectations are.
Nicole also uses the information she receives to put her condition in perspective. According to her, “’Inoperable’ is a much scarier word than ‘cancer’.” As long as surgery is even an option, she knows things aren’t as bad as they could be.
A positive outlook
Overall, then, Nicole is doing well. Having breast cancer has not affected her attitude to life itself very much. Because it was detected so early, she and her doctors are confident that she will lead a full life. By keeping informed about her condition and listening to her body, she is typical of more and more survivors who are reclaiming a sense of purpose in their lives.
At an open-mic night recently, she treated the audience to an aria from La Traviata, in which the main character dies of tuberculosis. No-one would have believed she was ill, though. In fact, she lit up the stage with her love for life. It seems Frederik made the right choice to stick around.
[I originally wrote this article for the "writing science" module as part of the MSc Science Communication course at UWE. It's aimed at readers of a magazine like Psychologies. I've added some extra details about that publication below.]
Tagline: Know more, grow more
Cover price: £3.80
Aim: “Psychologies focuses on helping [women] understand [themselves] and the world around [them], by gathering the latest, most compelling thinking and translating it into personally relevant insight and guidance.”
This article would be suitable for an October edition, potentially as part of a “dossier” of features, all about breast cancer awareness month. [yes, I know, the open-mic night was in January and therefore isn't "recent" in October... good thing this wasn't really for publication]
[Psychologies features of this (shorter) length typically have an extra box, with additional advice, quizzes, top-ten lists etc. The one I proposed is below.]
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As well as holding fundraising events, charities are reminding us to be watchful, and what to do about it if we notice something worrying. As Nicole says, “Finding out early saved my life.”
It’s not just lumps that can be a sign of trouble. Here are a few other things to look out for:
- A change in breast size, particularly if it’s just on one side.
- Pain in your breasts or armpits that doesn’t go away.
- Skin problems around your nipples, such as a rash.
A family history of breast cancer can also be a factor. Macmillan Cancer Support offer a useful online tool for working out whether you are at a higher risk, available from their website: http://opera.macmillan.org.uk
The most important thing is to know what’s normal for you. Everyone’s body is different, and it changes over time, both with age and over the course of the month. It’s when changes are sudden that we have to be especially careful. If you spot something, get it checked by your doctor. From age 50, screening checks should also be part of your routine.
Breast cancer is no longer the death sentence it once was. Survival rates for the early stages are already very high, and as we have seen, well-informed survivors lead empowered, fulfilling lives.