Surviving breast cancer is a physical and mental battle

Five years on from her diagnosis, Yvonne Joye reflects on how the mental challenges of cancer need to be acknowledged and says it takes time to move from surviving to thriving. 

AN estimated 2,600 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year — a sizeable community of women —yet when it happens to you, you can feel quite alone. Once the words “malignant tumour” are uttered that becomes the moment at which your existence is divided into life before cancer and life after cancer. Time screeches to a halt, the white noise of living stills and a veil comes down on everything that went before.

The god-awful fear that slices you raw on diagnosis day becomes a recurrent feature of life, making itself known in spurts and stabs when you least expect it. And it doesn’t go away, even if cancer does. It is a belligerent reminder that cancer is not just a physical challenge but every ounce the mental marathon too.

On diagnosis, it’s all about the physical: scans, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hair-loss etc. As the body’s every last crevice is rummaged for cancer cells, the mind in its silent terror screams: “Stop — I can’t cope if I’m riddled with cancer!” Although cancer and its treatment is absolute, the cascade of emotions it kick-starts is a law onto itself.

This was my experience of cancer. It reads dark, I know, but my story owns plenty of light. Next month, I will be five years cancer-free. In one month’s time, my chances of getting cancer are equal to those who never had cancer at all. It’s ironic how the physical journey of cancer is about getting you back to where you started while the emotional journey delivers you a million miles away from where it began.

Fear is the greatest emotion I attach to cancer. For me, diagnosed at 41 with kids aged 14, 11 and nine, fear was way ahead of shock, anger and even relief when relief finally came. Fear made me sick in a way chemotherapy never did. And I am not alone.

Talking to other survivors, I learned how fear comes in different guises. One woman, aged 54, said the hardest part was telling her two grown-up children her diagnosis; she feared their fear of losing her more than breast cancer itself. Another said how she dreaded telling her elderly parents; at 50 and childless she was still their “little girl” and despite a rigorous treatment regime it was this that frightened her more.

There are two stories to cancer — the physical and the mental with the latter outlasting the former. Yet still it is only the physical side of cancer that the HSE incorporates into its treatment programme. So, while so much was being done for my body, it was up to me to look after my mind. I tried to live in the present instead of jumping into the future, I approached the cycle of treatment one day at a time rather than confront the process in its entirety. Still, peace of mind eluded me with my believing it would only come from knowing the cancer was gone.

Waiting to learn if cancer is gone is agonising, fearing it has spread is inevitable. But two small words eventually delivered me from the jungle of shadows in my mind: “all clear”. But my euphoria soon abated. In treatment, breast cancer patients accept the outward changes of lumpectomies and mastectomies in deference to their internal significance of saving life. But once the routine of treatment subsides and the schedule of events cease, we as survivors are left with a new normality and the fallout hits home — breast cancer undresses a woman in a way no lover ever would.

In life post-cancer, many women are grieving. One young woman spoke of her anguish at losing what was now irretrievable; at 38 years of age, chemotherapy had pushed her into early menopause and her dreams of having another child were lost: “I thought I had plenty of time but suddenly my nurturing days are over”. Another, 43 years old, despaired at her loss of libido attributing it to the medication she was on: “breast cancer is a big slap in the face to a woman and her womanliness”. Another woman, aged 55, and post-mastectomy, yearned for intimacy with her husband but the changes to her body stood in the way, a tension between perceived absence and presence — her femininity and her life. “Cancer affects the body but I feel my mind took the brunt of it,” she says.

There was also the woman, 50, who confessed to missing the routine of treatment, the hospital’s attention and the regularity of care: “I was leaving the hospital and I was like a child when they take the stabilisers off their bicycle.”

The breast care teams are integral to the process with part of their remit being to highlight the support systems out there but that’s just it — those vital supports are “out there”. Why can’t counselling co-exist alongside the twin treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy as an inherent component of hospital care? Jumping from surviving to thriving post-cancer takes time.

Psychologists cite survivor’s guilt at not “feeling better faster” but though the pace might differ, cancer survivors do flourish — the throttle of life is gripped and pushed back into gear. Commonly as survivors we say we’re better post-cancer, we no longer sweat the small stuff. However, between the gusto and the new perspective, there can be a reticence to admit the omnipresent fear: what if the cancer comes back? But we cannot move forward if we persist in looking back. And going forward need not be a solo run.

There is help “out there”. ARC, a voluntary organisation, offers professional counselling, and complementary therapies to all affected by cancer – patients and their families and friends because cancer doesn’t happen to just one person. The Marie Keating Foundation run courses covering diet, recurrence prevention, exercise , fitness, fatigue, stress, sexuality and body image. Survivors Supporting Survivors is the Irish Cancer Society’s one-to-one support programme, providing emotional and practical advice from one cancer survivor to another.

Despite the ravages of cancer and its treatment every breast cancer survivor feels lucky to be alive. Yet luck has nothing to do with it; vigilance, education, and being pro-active about our health are saving our lives.

I have learned to accept the gift of the present. Today, I am five years further into the lives of my children, five years further into the life of my marriage and five years further into my life. Cancer was never supposed to happen but it did. Yet at the end of the day life keeps happening too and for that I am infinitely grateful and glad.

FIVE WAYS TO MIND YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

1. Balanced diet: Eating the right kinds of food during and after treatment can make you feel better and stronger.

2. Frequent exercise: Keeping active throughout a cancer diagnosis and treatment, serves physical and mental well-being.

3. Rest and sleep: Be kind to yourself and listen to your body.

4. Stay in the present: Suffice for today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

5. Talk, laugh and cry: It brings perspective, release and balance.

'Painting it Pink' initiative aims to raise awareness of breast cancer

Surviving breast cancer is a physical and mental battle

A STRING of top businesses are ‘Painting it Pink’ this month to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society’s Action Breast Cancer programme which provides breast cancer information and support services to thousands of women every year. Pink Partners for 2014 include:

Ballyfree Eggs will be donating 5c from sales of every pink box of free range eggs. The special packs are available in leading retailers in Ireland throughout October and November.

Barry’s Tea will be donating 10c from special pink packs of Barry’s Gold Blend Tea which is available at a special promotional price of €2. The packs are available to purchase in all 460 Centra stores located nationwide.

Boots Ireland is stocking Irish Cancer Society pink merchandise. Customers can purchase their pink pins and ribbons as well as avail of breast cancer awareness advice and literature in all 76 stores located nationwide.

Centra is selling a limited edition Pink Reflective Vest for €5 in Centra stores nationwide with net proceeds going to the ICS.

Esso stations will be selling ‘pink’ merchandise such as pins and ribbons.

GAA Jewellery is offering a limited edition ‘pink’ collection consisting of a sterling silver pink jersey charm, a pink GAA tag and a pink friendship bracelet. The collection is available in leading jewellers throughout Ireland and online at gaajewellery.com with 10% of the wholesale cost of all sales made during October donated to the Society.

ghd will be donating €10 from sales of the new ghd V coral styler from their Bird of Paradise collection. Sets are for sale in salons nationwide and are available on ghdhair.com/ie.

Shiseido will donate 10% of salesPurchase the products at Brown Thomas Cork and Limerick and online.

The Zip Yard is turning pink as they raise funds through pink bake sales, pink coffee mornings, pink sponsored walks and runs, as well as offering wardrobe makeovers to breast cancer survivors. Today, in a special Sew Pink initiative, they will be donating 50% of turnover in each of their 24 shops throughout the country to the Society.

Irish Cancer Society pink merchandise includes: Pink Ribbon €2, Pink Badge €3, Pink Pen €4, and Pink Trolley Key Chain €4.

* For more information on ‘Pink Partners’ visit www.cancer.ie/pinkpartners 


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