October – National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Breast cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in women in Ireland according to The Marie Keating Foundation. The month of October is dedicated to raising breast cancer awareness, the aim is to encourage people to self- check their breasts and to seek medical advice if they suspect anything is abnormal. Early detection of breast cancer saves lives. Breast cancer is a disease that affects thousands of women in Ireland, typically occuring in older women, the risk of breast cancer increases with age. Many women under fifty also present with the disease. The breakdown is as follows, the statistics are taken from www.breastcancerireland.com;
- 23% of women in the age group 20-50 years of age
- 34% of women in the age group 50-69 years of age
- 36% of women over 70 years of age
- Only 5% to 10% are hereditary.
According to the Marie Keating Foundation, 1 in 7 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their life time, and case numbers are on the increase. Approximately 3,600 people are diagnosed with breast cancer annually in Ireland. Breast cancer occurs in men but to a significantly lesser degree; approximately 30 men are diagnosed annually. Transgender men and transgender women are at risk of developing breast cancer, the rate of risk is not currently quantified (Crowley & Lacey, 2021).
The positvie news is that survival rates are increasing; 85%, and mortality rates are decreasing by 2% annually www.breastcancerireland.com. The Irish Cancer Society provides detailed information booklets on breast cancer, and what to expect throughout the various stages of the treatment process.
The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis
Breast cancer is treated in cancer centres of excellence throughout Ireland; despite the advances in medical treatment and increasing positive outcomes for women, breast cancer remains a highly stresssful and traumatic experience for women due to the social and emotional impact of the disease. A women experiences shock at the diagnosis, then the reality of surgery, invasive treatment, change in body image, impact and side effects of various treatments; chemotherapy, radiotherapy and medication. “Many experience this threat to the integrity of the body as a threat to self-worth” (Ham, 2014, pg.2). The effects of the invasive treatments on the body, and the potential impact on the psychological health of the person need to be recognised.
The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis is well documented; breast cancer is a potentially life threatening disease, women on receipt of diagnosis have a fear of their own mortality (death anxiety), and there is a fear that the cancer will spread elsewhere in the body and/or reoccur (health anxiety). The patients not only have to deal with the physical impact of surgery, they have to deal with a range of side effects that accompany the treatment, and the accompanying threat of this to their femininity and body image. Many women experience loss of self-confidence, and can be vulnerable to developing anxiety, low mood and depression. In her article ‘Healing the Split between Mind and Body’ Denise Ham “argues for a better understanding of the emotional and psychological impact of a breast cancer diagnosis” (Ham, 2014, pg 1).
Fan et al., (2023) inform us that many breast cancer survivors (BCSs), have unmet supportive care needs (USCNs), and these USCNs can have a detrimental effect on BCSs well-being and quality of life. “The term “supportive care needs” is an umbrella term covering the physical, informational, emotional, practical, social and spiritual needs of a person affected by cancer” (Fan et al., 2023, p. 2).
Support for breast cancer patients and survivors
During and following treatment, patients have to find ways to support the healing of their minds, and manage their lives with the reality of living with cancer. The National Cancer Institute suggest that all cancer patients are screened for distress early in their treatment, and re-screened if necessary at critical stages throughout their care, Psychological Stress and Cancer – National Cancer Institute. “Psychological interventions have been beneficial in decreasing patients’ distress and enhancing their quality of life” (Compas & Luecken, pg. 111, 2002). Most people experience low mood and sadness after a breast cancer diagnosis. There is support available to breast cancer patients in Ireland, emotional and psychological support is offered to patients as part of their breast cancer treatment, if is not available on site in hospitals, the patients are referred to outside resources, for example; cancer support centres. There are many cancer support centres throughout the country, for example; ARC cancer support centres and Purple House Cancer Support Centre offer a safe and supportive place for people to go to. One can drop in to meet other people with cancer, and they can avail of counselling, group support, reflexology, mindfullness, yoga, stress management courses and much more, check out www.arccancersupport.ie/ and https://www.purplehouse.ie/ for further information. In addition, The Irish Cancer Society, Marie Keating Foundation, Breast Cancer Ireland offer all kinds of support to patients, see links below to their websites.
Counselling and/or psychotherapy provides people with the space to talk to someone in a private and confidential setting. People come to therapy to explore their feelings and emotions, feelings and emotions that have arisen from their diagnosis and subsequent treatments, for example; anger, anxiety, grief, pain, loss, fatigue, social isolation, sexuality concerns and self-blame. The process can help people come to terms with their diagnosis, and develop skills to support them in their life after cancer, or their life living with cancer.
Compas, B. E., & Luecken, L. (2002). Psychological adjustment to breast cancer. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(3), 111–114. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00180
Crowley, D., & Lacey, V. (2021, February). Guide for providing care for transgender patients in primary care quick … www.teni.ie. https://teni.ie/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/ICGP_Trans_Health_QRG_v.2.pdf
Fan, R., Wang, L., Bu, X., Wang, W., & Zhu, J. (2023). Unmet supportive care needs of breast cancer survivors: A systematic scoping review. BMC Cancer, 23(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12885-023-11087-8
Ham, D. (2014). Healing the Split between Mind and Body. Healthcare Counselling &
Psychotherapy Journal, Vol.14, Issue 3.