The Hidden Impact Of Breast Cancer On Women
When it comes to breast cancer, public health officials tend to have the loudest voices. And why not? After all, breast cancer is primarily a health issue. Breast cancer affects around 12 per cent of women at some point in their life. And although survival rates have been steadily improving over the last few decades, the risks are still high. It’s by no means a cancer that has been beaten - at least not yet.
Public health messages tend to focus on the factual, evidence-based approaches for preventing and dealing with the condition. Women are implored to eat healthily, exercise frequently, and avoid, when possible, smoking. They’re also asked to get regular mammograms and to undergo radical mastectomies if the disease is sufficiently advanced. But behind all the talk of prevention and treatment are many hidden costs that women of all ages must deal with in their battle against the disease.
The medical community has not addressed many of these issues, and for a good reason: dealing with some of them is outside the realm of its expertise. That task has been left to other people.
When Angelina Jolie announced that she was going to have a double mastectomy because she had the BRCA gene that increases breast cancer risk, the world applauded. She did something she thought was worthwhile: went public about losing her breasts and showed the world that she was proud to do so. In a sense, she took a cultural lead and offered her support to the millions of women out there struggling with the decision about whether to part with their breasts.
Although her actions made a difference, breast cancer is still a very personal disease and can have distinct impacts on individuals, depending on their personalities.
The Psychological Impact
The link between breast cancer and psychological distress has been known for decades. In the 1960s, when researchers first began investigating it, they found (perhaps not surprisingly) that the impact of the loss of perceived femininity on the mental health of their patients was stark. Women would mourn the loss of breast tissue and feel as if they had lost an essential part of their personhood. In the 1970s, researchers added to this body of work with the discovery that the psychological trauma of breast cancer also led to increasing severity of the disease and a lower chance of survival.
Doctors began to worry about giving patients accurate diagnoses because of the effect it might have on patient survival. By the 1980s, many women with breast cancer didn’t even know they had it. Doctors feared that psychological trauma might lead to the development and proliferation of the disease, making the condition of their patients worse.
Today, the psychological impact of breast cancer is not what it was. Not only are there are a plethora of breast augmentation surgery options, but there’s no longer the assumption that breasts equal femininity. Most progressive people now understand that femininity is a much broader set of traits, and that realisation is slowly becoming a part of the culture.
Although radical mastectomies might be a powerful preventive tool in the fight against breast cancer, the procedure can cause unpleasant side effects. Sleeplessness is common among women who have had the operation because of the way that it affects their ability to get comfortable at night. Whereas once their breasts offered support, they now struggle to get into a sleep pattern.
The Logistics Of Treatment
Breast cancer is a complex disease. Each women’s cancer is her own (which is one of the reasons the condition is so difficult to cure). Although the treatment itself can be unpleasant, so too can be the logistics. The number of visits to the hospital can be enormous and can go on for many weeks. Such a regimen is enough to threaten the emotional well-being of even the strongest women. Not only do women have to go back and forth to the hospital continually - and in so doing face the reality of their condition - but they also miss out on other activities that can take their mind off their fight with cancer. Going to the gym, social events, and spending time with their children can all be overrun with checkups and scans.
Even when breast cancer is beaten, many women fear that it will come back - the logic being that if it can happen once, it can happen again. Many find solace in support groups and patient counseling services to help them deal with their on-running concerns and anxiety-provoking thoughts.