Examining the Link Between Gestational Diabetes and Breast Cancer

Approximately 12% of all U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer during the course of their lives. There are a number of common risk factors associated with breast cancer, such as excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, genetic mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2, and a family history of breast cancer.  In recent years, the link between diabetes, and particularly gestational diabetes, and cancer has been examined more closely to determine whether this group of women are especially at risk. A better understanding of gestational diabetes and its long-term effects make it significantly easier to understand its link to breast cancer.

What exactly is gestational diabetes?

Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy and can, when untreated, cause health complications for mother and baby. When a woman has gestational diabetes she will display high blood sugar levels that typically return to normal after the pregnancy. Although any complication during pregnancy can be alarming, it is important to note that gestational diabetes can generally easily be controlled through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and in extreme cases, medication. While gestational diabetes does not necessarily result in serious complications, it is important to be aware of the risks for both mom and baby.

The link between gestational diabetes and breast cancer

Although women with gestational diabetes do not present an increased risk of breast cancer according to studies that have been conducted, it does increase their risk of contracting type 2 diabetes later on. In fact, up to 10% of all women who had gestational diabetes will develop type 2 diabetes according to the National Institutes of Health. This can occur anywhere from within a few weeks after delivery to months or even years later.

Type 2 diabetes proven to increase breast cancer risk

The risk for developing breast cancer is significantly higher among women with type 2 diabetes according to findings published in Diabetes Care. Postmenopausal women above the age of 50 are most at risk with a 27% increased risk of breast cancer. Type 2 diabetes triggers a number of changes in the body such as high insulin level, high glucose levels, and increased inflammation that may increase breast cancer risk. The connection between type 2 diabetes and breast cancer may also be a two-way street as breast cancer survivors could be at an increased risk of developing diabetes following chemotherapy.

Despite gestational diabetes not having a direct impact on breast cancer risk it can, in a more indirect way, increase the risk. By following a healthy lifestyle after a gestational diabetes diagnoses it is possible to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes later in life which has directly been linked to the onset of breast cancer.

Ten Things I Wish I Had Known When I was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

As soon as the first golden leaves of autumn appear on the trees a feeling of sadness starts to descend over me. I’m catapulted back over the years to a late September day. A day that’s etched forever on my mind. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In the weeks that followed my diagnosis, I became enveloped in a sea of pink as Breast Cancer Awareness Month took place. But when October came to an end and the pink ribbon wearers disappeared, I was left wearing the everyday reality of the disease. Over a decade has passed since then and yet I still feel a sense of sadness when I think of that time and all I had yet to learn and go through. I can’t help wondering how much my experience might have been different if I had known then what I know now.

One thing I now know is that we owe it to those who come after us to share our hard-earned wisdom. So in that spirit, here are ten things I wish I had known back when I was a newly diagnosed patient.  I hope sharing these lessons may make the path towards recovery that little bit smoother for others who are new to this journey.

1. Everything in your life is about to change

Once you’ve been baptized in the fire of cancer your life as you knew it will be irrevocably changed. The apparent randomness of a cancer diagnosis can shake your sense of identity to its very core and afterwards nothing will ever feel certain again.   Cancer invades not only your body but every other area of your life, including your relationships, family life, friendships, finances, career, and even your sense of self. You may be surprised to find the people you thought you could count on disappear from your life. At the same time, you will be surprised to find support can also come from unexpected sources.

2. Online support is real

Among those unexpected sources will be the people you meet online. Online communities may be virtual but they are no less real in terms of support and advice. On Facebook and Twitter you can find patient communities which will be an invaluable source of information and support to you. Check out the #BCSM Twitter chat – a weekly chat for breast cancer patients and their caregivers.

3. You will feel fearful and anxious

One of the most common emotional and psychological responses to the experience of cancer is anxiety.  Cancer is a stressful experience and normal anxiety reactions present at different points along the cancer pathway. Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a biological purpose. It’s the body’s physical “fight or flight” (also known as the stress response) reaction to a perceived threat. You may experience a racing or pounding heart, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, upset tummy, sweating or tense muscles. All of these signs indicate that sympathetic arousal of your nervous system has been activated, preparing you to stand your ground and fight or take flight and run away from danger.

Try this coping tip. When we are fearful and anxious we tend to breathe more shallowly.  Shallow breathing, which doesn’t allow enough oxygen to enter our bodies, can make us even more anxious. Practice taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down and lowers blood pressure. The advantage of focussing on the breath is that it is always there with us. We can turn to it anytime we are feeling anxious.

4. You are your own best health advocate

Although you may be reeling from the news of a cancer diagnosis, it’s important that you learn as much as you can about your diagnosis and what treatment options are available.  In this article, you will learn which questions you should ask your healthcare team and where to find reliable and trustworthy information to become better informed about your health condition.

5. Your will experience brain fog

Cognitive impairment, to a lesser or greater degree, can affect you both during and after your treatment. You may have the feeling that your cognitive abilities are slower and less acute than before – almost as if your brain is shrouded in a fog. We call this the “chemobrain” effect and the effect may persist for months or even years after treatment ends.  A more formal term – post-cancer cognitive impairment (PCCI) – is used by researchers to describe a group of symptoms, which include slow mental processing, difficulty concentrating, organizing, and multitasking.

PCCI symptoms can also include:

  • memory loss – forgetting things that you normally remember
  • struggling to think of the right word for a familiar object
  • difficulty following the flow of a conversation
  • confusing dates and appointments
  • misplacing everyday objects like keys and glasses

It’s still not clear how many people with cancer get chemobrain or which drugs cause it. However, there are several things that you can do to help you cope with its symptoms. Read this article for more information.

6. You will experience bone-crushing tiredness

We all know what it’s like to feel tired – physically, mentally, and emotionally, but usually after some relaxation and a good night’s sleep, we are ready to take on the world again. When you have cancer, though, rest often isn’t enough.  You experience a persistent, whole-body exhaustion. Even after adequate sleep or rest, you will still feel tired and unable to do the normal, everyday activities you did before with ease.

A lot of cancer patients don’t report fatigue to their doctors because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done to alleviate the debilitating effects of cancer-related fatigue.  If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression and profoundly diminish your quality of life, so it’s important that you speak to your doctor if fatigue is an issue for you. Read How To Cope With Cancer-Related Fatigue for more tips and information.

7. You may be surprised by feelings of guilt

Cancer-related guilt is a complex emotion. You may feel guilty and worry that your lifestyle choices somehow contributed to a cancer diagnosis. If you learn that you carry the BRCA1/2 gene, you may feel guilty that you could pass this gene mutation on to your children.  Or you may feel guilty that your cancer was diagnosed at an earlier stage than a friend or family member who has a worse prognosis.  These feelings of guilt may surprise you, but it’s a perfectly normal reaction to a traumatic life event like cancer. Read How Do You Deal With Cancer Guilt to learn more about this topic.

8. You will feel pressured to stay in a positive frame of mind

I admit I caved in at the beginning to pressure to stay strong and positive when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I did it because it reassured the people around me.  While I accept that for some people maintaining a positive attitude is a valid coping mechanism, for myself and many others, the pressure to always show our sunny side is a denial of our pain, anger, grief, and suffering. I now believe by promoting this attitude in the face of cancer, we create unfair expectations and deprive patients of an outlet for their darker fears. This is my personal viewpoint, and it’s one that I don’t expect everyone to share. However, I mention it here so that those who are newly diagnosed don’t feel they have to always present a smiling face to the world. It really is ok to express your fears, your sadness, your anger, and your grief too.

9. You will need time to grieve

While many people think of grief only as a reaction to bereavement, we can feel grief after any kind of loss. When we step back and look at the cancer experience we see that grief and loss are a fundamental part of the experience. Some of our losses are tangible, for example losing our hair, and some are more intangible, such as the loss of trust in our bodies.

Coping with the losses associated with cancer is challenging.  Grief brings many emotions with it. Patients, as well as caregivers and family members, may go through emotions of anger, denial, and sadness.  While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain and sadness that, in time, can help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.   

10. Cancer doesn’t end when treatment does

I wish I had been better prepared for how I would feel when cancer treatment ended. I just assumed I would pick up where I had left off and get on with my life as if cancer was no more than a blip. I wish someone had told me that cancer doesn’t end when treatment does.    Sometimes, there can be a code of silence surrounding the aftermath of cancer treatment.  There is an expectation that when you walk out of hospital on that last day of treatment, your cancer story has ended. But in many ways it’s only just beginning.

I now know that cancer is more complicated than simply being disease free and that a physical cure doesn’t mark the end of the healing process. Adapting to changes in energy and activity levels, adjusting to altered relationships at work and in your personal relationships, coming to terms with a changed body image, and managing pain and treatment side effects are some of the things you will face in the post-treatment phase of recovery. Be compassionate and gentle with yourself as you move through this stage of your cancer journey. Don’t judge yourself or feel pressured by others to try to hurry this stage along.

Wrapping Up

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing event. You will go through many emotions and experiences throughout the roller-coaster ride of diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Each person will experience it in their own way. While there’s no right or wrong way to go through the experience, it’s important that you don’t ever feel as if you have to go through it alone. Reach out at each step of the way and find someone who understands what you are going through and can offer you the support you need.

Patient Profiles: Breast Cancer Part III

This is the last installment in our three-part series profiling breast cancer survivors. In Part II, the women gave insight into the importance of their mental health and their own attitude as critical components of care. They also shared some of the ways in which they coped with cancer. Today, the women talk about the possibility of recurrence. So, we pick up with the final stage of Shannon’s preventive measures. Based on her history, she knows her cancer can come back, but she wanted to do everything she could to prevent it.

Shannon’s treatment didn’t stop at reconstruction. She opted to have an oophorectomy, which meant she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Remember, her moms’s cancer had returned and been terminal, so Shannon wanted to take every preventive measure she could. “My fear and my worry is that hers came back 16 years later and she died at 65. If the same thing happened to me, I would die before I’m 60,” says Shannon. Her breast cancer diagnosis meant she was at higher risk for female cancers and she wanted to do whatever she could to have as much time as she could. “I’m relatively young,” she says. “I wanted to give myself as long as I could.” In order to have the procedure, Shannon had to take medication that would put her into menopause and the side effects that came with menopause affect her quality of life, so she says she goes back and forth on whether or not she would do the oophorectomy, if she had it to do all over again.

Although she did have melanoma a couple of years ago, Tina has been 27 years without recurrence of breast cancer. “I didn’t really feel safe until five years out,” she says, but adds that you never really know if it’s coming back, and that you should always be vigilant about checking for lumps. There is a risk of late recurrence, i.e. breast cancer that comes back more than five years after diagnosis and treatment, and it is more likely if it was later stage when first diagnosed, and if the cancer was HR positive.

Like Tina, Betty also had a second cancer. Her colon cancer was discovered in 2009 and her doctor estimated that it had been growing for ten years, but because of where it was growing in relation to the colon wall, the tumor was able to be cleanly removed and no treatment was required. Because her breast cancer was ductal and not in the tissue, and her doctor was able to get very clean margins, Betty says she doesn’t worry about it returning. “I’m more afraid of the colon cancer returning,” she says.

Diana has been nine years without recurrence, but she says, “My guard is always up.” Maybe it’s because her mother and grandmother both had breast cancer, and, despite being BRCA negative, she believes her cancer is hereditary. Shannon feels the same way and says she believes 100 percent that her cancer is genetic. The genetic testing available is limited compared to the number of genes in the human body so, Shannon says, “There’s a long way to go.” And, while it’s early for Shannon to think about recurrence, she can’t help but consider it. “I don’t want to spend every day thinking about cancer. I don’t want that to be my life,” she says, “but it is in the back of my head.” Not knowing how the cancer might come back makes Shannon especially uneasy because she doesn’t have a plan for it.

When Meredith finished treatment, her doctor said he didn’t expect to see her back for recurrence. The odds were in her favor that she would remain cancer free. Meredith, like Betty, says she got the best cancer to get if you’re going to get cancer, but unlike the other ladies, Meredith was not expecting to get cancer. She didn’t have the same family history. Her only red flag was that she had an aunt that had ovarian cancer and she thought maybe her grandmother had breast cancer when she was 90. Meredith was young, she had three small children, and breast cancer was not on her mind. In fact, she was so sure she didn’t have it, that she took her 18-month-old daughter with her when she got the results from her lumpectomy. But, Meredith, who is also BRCA negative, did have cancer, and while her cancer was ductal, it was bigger than it should have been, and there was also a spot on her other breast that needed to be watched. Wanting to be proactive Meredith opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction. She also had chemotherapy, because the cancer was found in a lymph node, and she lost all her hair. While she possibly could have gone without radiation, she opted for it. Again, she wanted to be aggressive and as proactive in her treatment as possible. She wanted to make sure her cancer was gone.

About a month ago, Meredith found another lump under her arm. She had a scan that was all clear except for the spot where the lump is located. She and her doctors are hoping it is just scar tissue, but she’ll have a lumpectomy this week and then she’ll wait for the biopsy results, which she is guessing will take several days. “The waiting is the worst,” she says. Liz, as a caregiver, felt the same way about waiting, “The worst part of all of it was waiting for the results.”

Tina, who also had young children at diagnosis, recalls that she just wanted to live long enough to raise her children. She says she found it difficult to accept the idea that she might die before her kids were grown. That thought is clearly on Meredith’s mind as well. “I remember saying, ‘Just give me five more years,’ and now it’s been seven years, and I’m saying, ‘Just give me seven more years,’ but no amount of time is enough,” she says. You can hear in her voice that she’s trying to be brave, and she says, “Hopefully, it will all be fine,” but it’s scary because, even though Meredith got the best cancer you can get if you’re going to get cancer, it is still cancer.

Anxious to hear Meredith’s results? We are, too, and as soon as she gets her results, she’s promised to follow up with us. We’re hoping for good news, and we will let you know as soon as we can.


Sources:

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/hormone_status

https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080813

http://www.who.int/cancer/events/breast_cancer_month/en/

https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2

Patient Profiles: Breast Cancer Part II

In the first part of of this three-part series, you were introduced to Betty, her daughter, Liz, Shannon, Tina, and Diana. You learned that women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are not really all that surprised to get a diagnosis. They are often expecting it. Having breasts is a risk factor, and women have breasts. In today’s installment, you’ll meet Meredith. She wasn’t expecting to get breast cancer. But, before we meet her, we’ll pick up where we left off in part one: the matter of hair loss and chemotherapy.

Whether or not a survivor lost her hair during cancer treatment, it’s one of the first things she says about her experience. Shannon even lost her eyelashes and they never came back. She says she knows it’s a little thing, but it still bothers her. Betty, didn’t lose her hair. Like a growing number of women, she did not have to have chemotherapy. She says avoiding chemo made a huge difference in her experience. At the time, Betty was receiving treatment at a research hospital, and there was a test available to her that would determine how beneficial chemotherapy would be in treating her cancer. She was told that if she scored between a one and a 19, she would not need chemotherapy. Betty scored an 18. While she had to pay for the costly test out of pocket and wait for insurance to reimburse her, she says it was worth it. “It was so helpful,” she says. “Because of what chemo does to your body, you don’t want it unless you need it.” Side effects from chemotherapy can include anemia, diarrhea, fatigue, fertility issues, hair changes/loss, memory loss, neuropathy, menopause and menopausal symptoms, mouth and throat sores, nausea, vaginal dryness, vomiting, bone loss/osteoporosis, heart problems, and vision problems. The test Betty had is now being more widely used and, as you may have read on the Patient Empowerment Network blog in the June Notable News here, researchers have learned that 70 percent of women don’t need chemotherapy when they have the most common type of early-stage breast cancer, with low and moderate risk of recurrence. The test looks at cells from a tumor biopsy to determine what is known as a patient’s recurrence score. Patients are scored between zero and 100, with zero being the lowest risk of recurrence. Researchers now know that women who score less than 25 do not necessarily need chemotherapy.

Betty also did not need to have a mastectomy. She had a lumpectomy followed by intraoperative radiation therapy, a 30-minute procedure that involves surgically placing a ball of radiation in the spot where the tumor had been. The procedure meant that Betty only had to have a single radiation treatment, and it helps reduce the side effects of radiation. Betty was eligible for that form of radiation in part because of the size of her breasts. She says she told the doctor, “I’ve been lugging around these big things my entire life and they are finally paying off.”

The intraoperative radiation was another benefit of being at a research hospital. At the time of Betty’s treatment, the procedure wasn’t being widely used and wasn’t available through her local doctors. Receiving treatment at a research hospital also made a difference in Diana’s care. She recalls going in to her local doctor’s office for her test results, and no one in the office would make eye contact with her. Then, when the doctor came in to see her, he told her she had breast cancer, that he wanted to treat it right away, that he’d see her next Tuesday, and then he left the room. Diana says she was left there shaking. “He has a heart, but he didn’t show it,” says Diana, who then went to a research hospital for a second opinion. Her new doctor was much better, she says, and adds that the shoulder of his lab coat was always dirty from the smudge of make up left behind after his patients hugged him.

The importance of good doctors that you are comfortable with seemed to be one of the critical components of care to all the women.They all talked about how much they liked and appreciated their doctors. “A really good physician realizes psychological and spiritual care are just as important,” says Tina, who sought the services of a psychologist after her treatment. She was struggling with anxiety and depression and found that the counseling really helped her to work through her emotions about having cancer, which emphasizes another, perhaps the largest, critical component of care during treatment: emotional and mental support and health. Diana says she found support online and emphasized the importance of staying positive through treatment. “Count your positives,” she says. “That is the key.” Along the same line, Betty says, “The number one thing is attitude.” Actually, she and Liz say “attitude” in unison, and Betty adds, “I think attitude is a big piece of it.” Meredith Cronin who was diagnosed at age 37, says “Attitude is everything.” Meredith, who had three children under the age of six when she was diagnosed, says she understands how easily you could get depressed as a cancer patient. “I always say that I felt blessed that I was young and so busy that I didn’t have time to be depressed.”

Shannon, who was accused of being negative because of her detailed planning to get breast cancer before she actually had breast cancer, says she wasn’t negative; she was realistic and it was that take on it and her preparation and planning that helped her maintain emotional balance.“It didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I think it would have,” she says. Shannon coped through research and attention to details, and she describes her experience in the kind of detail that makes you think she’d just had it done yesterday rather than three years ago. Betty used a different method of coping and says she’s been able to let a lot of the experience go. “I don’t dwell in that place,” she says. She and Liz also found a lot of humor in the experience. The clickity-clack of someone’s shoes, Betty’s preoccupation with cutting out recipes from a magazine, or the ridiculousness of what must have been an excruciating procedure, were all fodder for coping. It’s not that Betty doesn’t take cancer seriously, but she was better able to cope with the diagnosis by finding humor in the situation. “We laughed through our tears,” she says. Liz says that early on in the experience, they imagined the worst possible scenario, which made handling what really happened more doable. The ways of coping with cancer are as varied and vast as are the treatment options.

Next time, in Part III, recurrence.


Sources:

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/hormone_status

https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080813

http://www.who.int/cancer/events/breast_cancer_month/en/

https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2

Beyond Pink: The Other Side of Breast Cancer Awareness and Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other

It’s October and the pink frenzy is in full force.  Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) is impossible to miss given the pink ribbon avalanche that arrives each Fall.  While there is no denying that BCAM has played a significant role over the past two decades in raising public awareness of breast cancer, there is  nevertheless growing criticism of its off-balance approach to awareness-raising, with many key messages becoming lost in a sea of “pink-washing.”  Interestingly, some studies have even found that pink branding may actually lead the public to take breast cancer less seriously.

“The biggest issue I have with Breast Cancer Awareness month is that it’s not even really awareness,” writes Elizabeth McKenzie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. “Awareness is mindfulness of all aspects of breast cancer, which to a certain respect, is different for all of us, based on medical differences in disease processes, treatment access, and personal, social-emotional and cognitive processes.”

Much of the criticism centers on breast cancer campaigns which over-sexualise the disease, equating breasts with womanhood and femininity. Rod Ritchie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, points out that “October is a bad time for male breast cancer survivors because the trivialisation and sexualisation of the disease by the pink charities reinforces public awareness that breast cancer is gender specific. Since there’s little attempt to educate men that they need to be aware of symptoms too, we are diagnosed later and have a poorer prognosis. So, how about adding some blue to the pink, encouraging research on us, and screening those with a genetic propensity?”

Over a decade ago on an October morning, I was diagnosed with breast cancer; a double reminder each year of the role this disease has played in my own life.   Looking back, I now see that my view of breast cancer was one-dimensional. Standing today on this other side of cancer I see a broader picture, a richer landscape of many shades beyond pink. This post is intended to provide a truer picture of the lives of breast cancer patients in its many varied hues.  Wherever you are in your experience, whether you are caring for a loved one, recently diagnosed, finished treatment, or living with a recurrence or metastatic cancer, I hope this post will speak to you.

Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other

Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about breast cancer have come, not from my doctors, but from fellow patients. My doctors didn’t tell me about the effect of chemotherapy on my future fertility. I didn’t learn that treatment could damage my heart. And I finished treatment with no clue about late treatment side-effects or the risk of a cancer recurrence.

While valuing her oncologist’s expertise, Catherine Foy, who blogs at My Triple Negative Life, acknowledges that “within the online breast cancer community there will be someone awake somewhere in the world that can provide support and advice. For example, based on someone I followed I got my Vitamin D level checked which was very low and I am now on supplements. Other examples include creating awareness of late treatment side effects and reducing the feelings of isolation that some may experience.”

Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon diagnosed with recurrent breast cancer, and co-author of The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer, also refers to the feelings of isolation she experienced during her treatment. “I felt incredibly alone during my breast cancer treatment. I didn’t meet another patient at any of my chemo or radiotherapy sessions. All my advice was from amazing people on Twitter,” she says.  Liz offers this advice to patients undergoing chemotherapy:  “The two best tips I was given to reduce the side effects of chemo were: (1) Drink. Lots. Even when it taste disgusting. Ideally 3 litres a day. Try flavoured water or cordial. Carry a bottle everywhere you go. (2) Exercise. Walk for 30 minutes every day. You’ll hate me for making you. Some days you may have to stop and spit and pant and retch. But do it. You will feel better for it. And they were right. I did feel better.”

Barbara Jacoby of Let Life Happen agrees that we can learn valuable coping lessons from each other. “Whether it is a question of side effects that one is experiencing from a prescribed medication, or questions regarding treatment options or experiences or procedures, if you query a patient support or advocacy group, you are likely to find more answers and information from those who have had actual personal experiences with these issues. There is no doctor or group of medical professionals that has all of the information about real patient experiences and outcomes like any group of actual patients who have dealt with just about anything and everything imaginable on every level,” she says.

Both Catherine and Barbara believe that the information you get online should be shared and discussed with your doctors as the basis of shared decision making (the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together).  “I value my oncologist’s advice and experience,” says Catherine, “and would usually discuss with him any new developments that I may have encountered through the various platforms on social media.”

Terri Coutee, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and founder of DiepCFoundation, a non-profit organization providing information on options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, also embraces the concept of shared decision making and wants others to experience it too.  “I have had chemotherapy, radiation, two lumpectomies, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction using my own tissue,” she says. ”Each of these occurrences was fraught with difficult decisions and hours of research to optimize my own health care plan. I left offices of various health care providers with armfuls of brochures and information to sort through and organize.”

Terri encourages patients to download the Breast Advocate App, a new tool to aid the shared decision making process.  The app was developed by plastic surgeon Dr Minas Chrysopoulo, whose patient population is primarily those affected by breast cancer or at high risk of developing breast cancer. “Shared decision making is an extremely powerful approach to deciding our treatment plans. Simply put, it empowers us and helps us advocate for ourselves,” explains Terri.  “As patients, we owe it to ourselves to embrace everyday conversations with our health care teams,” she says. “The information on the Breast Advocate app is informative, intuitive, and specific to your individual diagnosis or situation. There are treatment options with evidence-based articles to discuss with your healthcare team. It even features a community section. I encourage you to check out the wealth of shared decision-making information and download the Breast Advocate app to your phone.”

Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening, was completely unaware of the issue until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “40% of women have Dense Breasts,” she explains. “A Mammogram is the only way to determine and measure Breast Density.  In Dense Breasts the reliability of screening mammograms can be reduced by as much as 50%.”   When you have a Mammogram, the radiologist reading it can tell if you have Dense Breasts.  Siobhan recommends you should ask for a copy of your radiology Mammogram report and ask if your breasts are dense. “If you have Dense Breasts you need to know and you should ask your Doctor/Radiologist about more personalised screening such as Breast Ultrasound or MRI,” she advises.

Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Other Side of BCAM

Learning about metastatic breast cancer (MBC; also called stage 4, secondary, or advanced breast cancer) from online blogs and social media networks was revelatory for me. MBC is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast — to the bones, liver, brain, or another organ. Even if the cancer is found in another organ, it’s still referred to as breast cancer. Like Beth Gainer, who says, she learned “that anyone who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer is at risk,” I too have found, in Beth’s words, “what the metastatic breast cancer community has had to say has been a real eye-opener.”

MBC has been referred to as a story half-told, the other side of BCAM we don’t hear enough about. As Catherine points out, “For me, breast cancer awareness month is for those who are not yet diagnosed or those newly diagnosed. The pink scene looks to future research and provides good information for those starting or in the midst of treatment. There is less focus on those of us living or dying with breast cancer.”

Nancy Stordahl is unequivocal in her criticism of the failure each October to adequately raise awareness of MBC. “Despite all the pink, all the races, all the pink ribbons, most people still know little or nothing about metastatic breast cancer,” she writes. “No wonder so many with metastatic breast cancer feel left out, isolated, alone and yes, even erased.”

Joanne Taylor, a metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate, is pushing for more information and awareness of MBC.  She created this infographic to show the red flag symptoms of advanced breast cancer.

While metastatic breast cancer is terminal and cannot be cured, because of improved treatments more women are living longer than ever with it. Even so, many misconceptions and lack of information about this diagnosis persist.    “A stranger called Elizabeth Richards contacted me and like many other women she knew very little about MBC, yet the more she found out, the more angry and amazed she became that the illness was side-lined,” says Joanne. “Elizabeth’s view was that as long as metastatic cancer wasn’t mainstream people would not be aware of the limited treatment options available to them. If they knew, they’d demand more.”

One of the biggest misconceptions is that MBC is an instant death sentence. “We thought with BCAM coming up we would do something different to show how people could live well with MBC, so we started the #busylivingwithmets campaign,” explains Joanne. “Elizabeth had the idea, it was positive, it showed what people can do if they have access to drugs and surgery. I was her inspiration! If I can do it, others can as well – if they are given the right options.”

Lessons of Resilience, Connection, and Hope

Cancer can be a lonely and isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. “A friend told me to accept whatever help was offered, says breast cancer survivor Connie Rosser Riddle. “It was her way of saying to quit being Superwoman, that it was okay to be in need, vulnerable. It was best to be specific when folks asked, “What can I do for you?” My answer combined what that person was best at and where I needed help, and that made a good fit for both of us.”

Audrey Birt, diagnosed with breast cancer three times, shares lessons of courage, connection and resilience on her blog.  “Cancer taught me I’m more resilient than I would have believed, it helped make me braver,” she says. “It also taught me that life cannot be controlled. This made me more able to live in the moment, and for the moment.  That’s probably not so good for my bank balance but it’s great for my life balance in a way. It taught me to reengage with writing through my blog and in a funny way it changed my life and connection to others. But it also taught me my fragility and that’s a lesson I’m still learning, one day at a time.”

Ultimately however, the lessons you learn will be unique to you. “There is not a single person, story, book, lecture or talk, which will teach us all we need to know to understand the impact of cancer on our lives. That’s what we have to figure out for ourselves when we go through our own cancer experience,” says therapist, Karin Sieger . “Having been diagnosed twice with breast cancer all I can say is try and stay open minded – to your body, the illness, treatment options. You always have choices. Don’t get stuck in fear and don’t get stuck in complacency either. Live your life to the best of your ability and stay true to who you are – with or without cancer.”

Patient Profiles: Breast Cancer Part I

Female breast cancer awareness, with it’s pink ribbons, and Save the Ta-tas t-shirts, and fundraising 5Ks, sweeps into October each year with the same prevalence as pumpkins. No other cancer has managed to garner as much support, attention, or money. But, even without the pink campaigns, the prevalence of breast cancer is not a secret. An estimated one in eight women is diagnosed in our country, and there are about 1.38 million new cases worldwide each year. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know a breast cancer survivor. This month, in a three-part series, Patient Empowerment Network is taking a closer look at five survivor stories and one caregiver. These women represent the more than 3.1 million women in the United States who have a history of breast cancer. In today’s installment, you’ll be introduced to five of the six women, and you’ll learn that getting a breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t really a surprise to any of them.

Breast cancer survivors are interlaced through all of our lives, and there is something very endearing about how openly willing they are to share their stories. They freely talk about their diagnosis and treatment, but more than that, they talk about their darkest moments alone in the hospital, or their need for counseling after treatment. They discuss the lengths they will go to endure invasive treatment that may prolong their lives, and they share their prayers to live long enough to see their children grown. They are so deeply candid that it’s as if they are inviting you to be a guest for the day in their exclusive club.

Only it’s a club you don’t really want to be a part of, says Betty Abbott, who was diagnosed five years ago. She was 72 at the time, and her cancer was ductal and non-invasive. She says it’s the kind you want to get if you’re going to get it. But, is there really a kind of cancer any woman wants to get? While the death rates for breast cancer have been decreasing since 1989 thanks to increased awareness, early detection, and advances in treatment, breast cancer is still the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women in the United States, second only to lung cancer. In 2018, approximately 40,920 women are expected to die from breast cancer.

Cancer is cancer, no matter the stage, the type, or the form. “That’s the thing about breast cancer…it’s still cancer,” says Liz Abbott. She’s Betty’s daughter. The two are very close, and Liz was with Betty every step of the way through diagnosis and treatment. Liz hasn’t had breast cancer…yet, but she fully expects to get it. She knows the statistics. Even though less than 15 percent of people who get diagnosed with breast cancer have a relative diagnosed with it, a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer nearly doubles if a first degree relative (a mother, sister, daughter) has had it. So many women get breast cancer, so many families of women, that for some women it’s no longer if they will get it, It’s when. Since her mom’s diagnosis, “our new realities are very different,” says Liz, who can’t help but worry if breast cancer is her own daughter’s path as well.

It was the path for Shannon Knudsen, who was diagnosed three years ago, when she was 43. Like Liz, Shannon was very close with her mother and walked with her through diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Shannon’s grandmother and great grandmother had breast cancer as well. So, for Shannon, breast cancer was never an if. “I never thought I wasn’t going to get it,” she says. “It was always a matter of when.” So Shannon wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis, but she says she was angry. You see, while she was prepared and had a plan, cancer still managed to throw her what she calls “an interesting little twist”.

Since she watched what her mom went through, being diagnosed at 49 with recurrence as leukemia 16 years later that was ultimately terminal, Shannon was diligent about staying on top of cancer research, and as soon as she learned that genetic testing was available, she looked into having it done. She was absolutely positive that her family carried the BRCA gene mutation. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA cells. When either of the genes has a mutation and the genes don’t produce the protein or function correctly, DNA cells are more likely to develop changes that can lead to cancer. There are specific mutations of the genes that increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers. People who have inherited the mutations, which can come from the mother or the father, are more likely to develop breast and ovarian cancers at younger ages.

As soon as Shannon’s insurance covered the testing, she had it done. Fully expecting a positive result, Shannon was prepared to have a preemptive double mastectomy with reconstruction. But, Shannon’s results were negative. She doesn’t carry the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutations.“I was shocked,” says Shannon, and she feels like the results gave her a little false security. That’s where the anger came in, because in August 2015, when her mammogram and subsequent 3D testing showed a black and jagged spot of concern, she knew that meant she was bound for chemotherapy, and that was something she had always planned to avoid by having preventive surgery. “I was 100 percent prepared to do that, and it didn’t work out that way,” says Shannon. Cancer, as it often does, had other plans.

Cancer had other plans for Tina Donahue as well. “It was a really, really difficult time in our lives,” says Tina of her diagnosis in 1991. It’s not that Tina wasn’t expecting to get a diagnosis at some point. She also had a family history of the disease, her maternal aunt died from breast cancer, and Tina was a nurse so she had a keen understanding of her risk, but when she was diagnosed at 44, she had just been promoted to an executive vice president position at work, and she had three young sons. She was also in school to get her MBA. Cancer was not part of her plan, and she thought she was going to have to quit school when she was diagnosed. However, thanks to the support of the other women in her study group, Tina didn’t have to quit school. She says the women rallied around her, told her not to quit and helped her, encouraged her, and tutored her through.

When it came to treatment, Tina and Shannon, though diagnosed more than 20 years apart, had very similar methods. “I just wanted to hit it as aggressively as I could and give myself as much life as I could,” says Shannon. She told her surgical oncologist that hers would be the easiest consultation ever. She had done the research, she knew the risks, she knew exactly what treatment she wanted. Tina, who also wanted to treat her cancer aggressively says she told her doctors, “Give me everything you’ve got.” Both women had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with silicone implants. Tina says her implants lasted 23 years before she noticed they started getting folds in them, which was a sign that both implants, though contained, had burst, and she had to have them redone. Shannon’s implants are a newer technology called gummy bear implants and are designed so that they won’t burst. Tina says the silicone felt and looked more natural, and Shannon says that was important to her as well. Tina also says that if she hadn’t been a nurse who had seen a lot of recurrence in women who had had a single mastectomy, and if she hadn’t been witness to her aunt’s experience, she may not have opted for the double mastectomy.

Diana Geiser did not opt for the double mastectomy, but now says she wishes she had. Diagnosed at age 50, Diana says she struggled with the decision at the time and remembers feeling like she wanted to keep part of herself. “Now I wish I’d done both,” she says explaining that one of the draw backs is that her natural breast gets bigger or smaller with weight fluctuations, but her reconstructed breast does not.

Regardless, all three women had four rounds of chemotherapy. They all had clear lymph nodes, and were hormone-receptor-negative (HR negative), meaning that it was likely that hormonal therapies wouldn’t work for them. Tina, still wanting to treat her cancer aggressively, says she wanted to kill everything and had low dose chemotherapy. She lost some of her hair, but not all of it. For Shannon and Diana, the pathology reports came back showing their tumors were aggressive, Shannon’s highly so, making chemotherapy necessary. They both lost all of their hair, which is something that must be incredibly pertinent to breast cancer survivors, because whether they did or they didn’t lose it, they all tell you about their hair.

Next time, in Part II, meet Meredith.

 


Sources:

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

https://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/diagnosis/hormone_status

https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/20080813

http://www.who.int/cancer/events/breast_cancer_month/en/

https://www.cancer.gov/types/breast

https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/genetics/brca-fact-sheet#q2

Fact or Fiction: 10 Common Breast Cancer Myths Busted

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and while many of us may think there is already plenty of awareness of breast cancer these days, it’s quite surprising how many myths exist alongside the facts.  Some breast cancer myths still continue despite a lack of evidence. A survey found that agreement with the phrase: “It seems like everything causes cancer” is on the increase. The danger is that when people believe this, confusion and misinformation about risk factors also increase. This can lead to unnecessary worry and can even hinder good prevention and treatment decisions.  So let’s untangle the facts from the fiction by busting ten of the most common myths which persist about breast cancer.

 

Myth #1: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer

Fact: Most breast lumps are caused by benign (noncancerous) changes, cysts, or other conditions.

Breast tissue is changing all the time because of fluctuating hormone levels, especially during times of menstruation and breastfeeding. It’s important to be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel, and know what changes to look for.

Take Action: While most breast lumps will not turn out to be cancer, lumps that feel harder or different from the rest of the breast (or the other breast), or change over time, should always be checked by your doctor.

 

Myth #2: Feeling pain in your breast is a symptom of breast cancer

Fact: Most breast cancers do not cause pain in the breast (although some do).

Many women experience breast pain or discomfort in the week leading up to their period. The pain usually goes away after menstruation.  Other breast conditions, such as mastitis (an infection of the tissue of the breast that occurs most frequently during breastfeeding), may cause a more sudden pain.

Take Action: If you have breast pain that is severe or persists and is not related to the menstrual cycle, you should be checked by your doctor.

 

Myth #3: Breast cancer is a hereditary disease

Fact: Only 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. The other 90% are largely due lifestyle and environmental factors. 

The risk in a person believing this myth is that they might think there is nothing they can do to prevent breast cancer if it is already in their family. Genetic testing can help you understand your inherited risk and allow you to make choices about your future care.
Some high-risk women also choose to have a prophylactic mastectomy to decrease their risk.

Take Action:  Cancer is a complex group of diseases with many possible causes, including lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, and physical activity. Lower your risk of developing breast cancer by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and limiting the amount of alcohol you drink.

 

Myth #4: Only women get breast cancer

Fact: While the incidence of breast cancer in women is significantly higher than in men, men can get breast cancer.

Many people don’t think of men as having breasts. In fact both men and women have breast tissue, although men have much smaller amounts than women. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, men carry a higher mortality than women do, primarily because awareness among men is less and they are less likely to assume a lump is breast cancer, which can cause a delay in seeking treatment.

Take Action:  Know the signs of male breast cancer. Symptoms include a hard lump underneath the nipple and areola and color change in the surrounding area.

 

Myth #5: Breast cancer only occurs in post-menopausal women

Fact: While it is true that the older a woman is, the higher her breast cancer risk becomes, breast cancer does occur in younger women.

Although breast cancer in young women is rare, more than 250,000 women living in the United States today were diagnosed with it under age 40[1]. In young women, breast cancer tends to be diagnosed in its later stages and be more aggressive. Young women also have a higher mortality rate and higher risk of metastatic recurrence (return of breast cancer in areas beyond the breast).

There is no effective breast cancer screening tool yet for women under 40, most of whom have dense breast tissue that prevents routine mammograms from being a useful screening tool.

Take Action:  Being breast aware is very important. Become familiar with how your  breasts normally look and feel and, if you notice a change, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

 

Myth #6: Wearing an underwire bra causes breast cancer  

Fact: Claims that underwire bras cause breast cancer have been widely debunked as unscientific.

According to the myth, wearing your bra every night or for too long daily prevents your pores from being able to breathe. Sweat accumulates and toxins build up which are believed to cause breast cancer. Another version of this myth is that wearing a bra which is too tight or sleeping in your bra can cause breast cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) states “we do not know of any epidemiologic studies published in scientific journals that suggest bras directly contribute to breast cancer.”

 

Myth #7: Deodorants can cause breast cancer

Fact: There is no evidence to back the claims that deodorants and antiperspirants cause cancer.

People sometimes worry about whether chemicals in common products such as cosmetics or toiletries could cause cancer, but there is no good scientific evidence to show that these products affect the risk of cancer. According to Breastcancer.org, even the strongest antiperspirant doesn’t block all perspiration in the armpit. Most cancer-causing substances are removed by the kidneys and released through urine or processed by the liver. Toxins are cleared by lymph nodes and not by the sweat glands.

Take Action: If you still have concerns about the link between antiperspirants and breast cancer, see the NCI fact sheet on Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer for more information.

 

Myth #8: Breast cancer is a single disease

Fact: Breast cancer is not one disease, but a complex group of different types of tumours.

Until quite recently, breast cancer was thought of as one disease, so everybody got much the same treatment, which led to overtreatment for some patients.  We now know that at a molecular level tumors act and respond to treatments differently.  Researchers have to date classified breast cancer into 10 different subtypes.  Having a more detailed system of tumor categories can help tailor treatment to individual patients and predict women’s survival more accurately.

 

Myth #9:  Stress causes cancer

Fact:  The scientific evidence that stress causes cancer is not conclusive.

Despite studies which show weak evidence of an association between stressful events and a diagnosis of cancer, many people still hold the belief that stress is a factor in causing cancer. It’s unrealistic to think we can avoid stress completely. Everyone feels stressed at some point in their lives. But long periods of stress can cause mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and can contribute to physical health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and ulcers. It makes sense then to get our stress levels under control.

Take Action: Adopt healthier coping mechanisms, such as learning stress-management techniques, taking the time to eat healthily and exercising more.

 

Myth #10:  Mammograms cause breast cancer

Fact: While mammograms do involve radiation exposure, the dose used is extremely low.

A mammogram (an x-ray of the breast) currently remains the gold standard for the early detection of breast cancer. Mammograms can detect lumps well before they can be felt, and the earlier that lumps are caught, the better one’s chances for survival. While it’s true that radiation is used in mammography, the amount is so small that any associated risks are tiny when compared to the benefits.

Take Action: According to the National Cancer Institute, the standard recommendation is an annual mammographic screening for women beginning at age 40. Base your decision on your physician’s recommendation and be sure to discuss any remaining questions or concerns you may have with your physician.

To wrap up, certain myths about breast cancer, though inaccurate, can nevertheless seem to make sense when we hear them repeated often enough.  While some risk factors for breast cancer are out of our control, knowing and understanding our risks will help us make the best choices possible for ourselves and our loved ones.

[1] Young Survival Coalition statistics on breast cancer in younger women.

 


For information on galactocele, please check out the blog What is a Galactocele, and What Can I Do About It? and 12 Breast Cancer Myths And Facts You Should Be Aware Of

Six Lessons Learned From Breast Cancer

“The period of greatest gain in knowledge and experience is the most difficult period in one’s life.”  — Dalai Lama

Writing in Oncology Times, radiation oncologist, Matthew Katz MD, described cancer as an illness of transformation. “Biologically” he wrote, “it represents a change in growth and homeostasis. Metaphorically, a cancer diagnosis can transform how you see yourself and the way you experience life afterward.” When the dust settles after the cancer storm has passed, it is not uncommon for patients to reappraise their lives. Cancer forces us to slow down and look at what really matters. Caught up in the routines of daily living, it is easy to avoid doing this; but cancer stops us in our tracks and pushes us to the edge of what is familiar. With cancer there is no hiding place; its sharp glare strips away pretence and artifice, revealing the true nature of our lives and relationships.

Cancer is an invitation to take stock and re-examine your life, to discover ways of leading a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Richard G. Tedeschi, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, reports five common growth outcomes from interviews he conducted with trauma survivors.

  • A deepened appreciation of life.
  • Enhanced relationships with others.
  • An appreciation for personal strength and endurance.
  • Setting out on new pathways or pursuing new interests and opportunities.
  • Spiritual growth and development.

As part of breast cancer awareness month, I extended an invitation to six women to share what they have learned from their personal experience of breast cancer. Their answers to the question, “what did cancer teach you?” reflect the themes identified by Dr Tedeschi. The women’s experiences span a trajectory of breast cancer from recent diagnosis and active treatment, to several years’ post-treatment.

Elizabeth McKenzie, a licensed psychologist who lives in Seattle, WA, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She learned to appreciate the value of stillness and find healing in solitary pursuits.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, I knew that I had just been enrolled in a crash course with countless learning objectives. Some of the lessons, however, have been unexpected.

I learned to appreciate stillness, the silence in life. I am an extroverted person. I work as a child/adolescent psychologist. I am married. I am a mother. I am a daughter and a sister. I have many friends. Before cancer, I thought that the foundation of my life was largely my connection with others. The time I was forced to be alone to heal from many surgeries for my own health, led to my pursuing other solitary pursuits, mindfulness meditation, nature photography, personal writing, and exercise.

Over time, I have learned that my individual experience was also part of that foundation; to have time alone to live in mindful stillness is a basic need for my mental and physical health, one that I had long neglected. In working on this solitary foundation, I have also strengthened my connection with others. I am now giving serious consideration to attending a residential mindfulness retreat, one that would require that I be silent, except for counseling with teachers, for 3-7 days. That is something that in the past, I would have considered myself neither able to do nor willing to give myself that kind of time. Today, I feel emotionally and physically ready for the experience of being by myself, with myself, surrounded by nature, for days on end. This gives me sense of peaceful willingness, a gentle hopefulness, in a life full of uncertainty.”

Becky Hogue, a PhD Candidate (Education) at the University of Ottawa, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. Becky wanted to share a cautionary tale so others could learn from her hard-earned experience.

“When I think back about one thing that I’ve learned, it is that treatments change over time but advice is full of ‘old wives tales’ which are often based upon older treatments. This was never more poignant than during my last round of AC chemotherapy. Throughout AC chemo, I had been suffering from nausea. I knew from support group that people who tolerated it well only had nausea for three to five days. I had nausea for at least eight days. Given I was on a 13-day cycle, this meant more days with nausea then without. Now, my nausea was never really bad. When I complained to my oncologist, he asked me “when was the last time you threw up?” Never. My nausea was never that bad, it just lingered.

The folks at support group (especially those a year or so ahead of me) would talk about different nausea meds. The meds I was on were not the meds that everyone was talking about. I found myself wondering if I should be on different meds? In my mind, a change of meds would mean less nausea. I would tolerate the chemotherapy side effects so much better.

What I didn’t realize was that these different nausea meds were the old school meds. The meds my oncologist had me on were the new ones. People in support groups, and some of the older chemo nurses, were not familiar with the new meds. The recommendations I was getting about ‘what works’ were ‘old wives tales’, and I bought into them instead of trusting my oncologist.

For my last bout of AC chemo, I tried a different combination of anti-nausea meds. My oncologist was away, so his nurse practitioner changed my meds (in part because I asked for it). I’m sure that if my oncologist was there, he would have explained that I was on the new meds, but also that they were doing their job. I didn’t know the other option was the older option. I didn’t realize that the folk lore about the effectiveness was in part just because it was the older meds. The new meds had not been around long enough to be part of the lore. With the change my nausea was no better, but the side effects of the meds were much worse. I ended up with terrible mouth sores (so bad I needed liquid morphine to manage the pain). One of my biggest regrets regarding my treatment was that I changed anti-nausea meds for the last cycle of AC chemo.  I had forgotten my own advice. I had forgotten who I had decided to trust (my oncologist), and let the ‘lore’ effect my treatment.

This tale is meant to be a cautionary one. Not so much about seeking advice, but about remembering that people who have followed this path before you did so at a different time. The treatment options (and side effect management options) available to you today may not be the same ones that were available for someone else a year ago. Although older treatments may work, chances are the newer ones are better. Before changing treatment plans based upon what you are hearing on the net or in support groups, ask yourself ‘is this an old tale’? And finally, decide who you are going to trust, and trust them.”

Audrey Birt, a two-time breast cancer survivor, focussed on lessons of courage, connection and resilience.

“Cancer taught me I’m more resilient than I would have believed, it helped make me braver. It also taught me that life cannot be controlled. This made me more able to live in the moment and for the moment and that’s probably not so good for my bank balance but it’s great for my life balance in a way. It taught me to reengage with writing through my blog and in a funny way it changed my life and connection to others. But it also taught me my fragility and that’s a lesson I’m still learning, one day at a time!”

Author of From Zero to Mastectomy, Jackie Fox, has written of how breast cancer “gave me part of myself back”.

“One of the obvious benefits of cancer is reconnecting with friends and family, but old loves like art and music may reappear in your life as well. In my case, I started writing poetry again. I hadn’t written or published anything for nearly 20 years and I really thought that part of my life was over. I’m so grateful to have it back and I hope I never lose it again.”

Liz O’Riordan was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015. From her unique perspective as a consultant breast surgeon, she is learning what it’s like to be a patient from the other side.

“Being a patient in my own speciality has opened my eyes to a lot of little things that could be changed to improve patient care. I learned that the language of cancer is completely different for a patient compared to a doctor. I have been made acutely aware that some of the phrases I’ve used in clinic when breaking bad news, that I’ve heard others say, or come up with myself, now make me cringe. A lot of women get recalled from screening with tiny low grade cancers (<1cm), and I’ve said “If you’re going to get breast cancer, this is a good one to have”, or “You’re lucky that we caught it early”. All of these phrases were said with good intentions, to try and reassure the women that they were unlikely to die of their cancer, and would not need chemo. And most women are still in shock, so I never see them truly react to what I have just said. But no cancer is a good one to have, and no-one is lucky to get cancer. I will pay close attention to what I say to patients in the future.”

The final lesson is one of authenticity and integrity, something Eileen Rosenbloom who was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2010, believes cancer cannot take away.

“Although I often felt like cancer was a thief that had taken everything from me, being so ill also created an opportunity to see what it could never take — the very essence that is me. Sometimes I’d look at my eyes in the mirror and think: There I am, right there. I’m still me. It felt empowering to realize no matter how dark things got, I still had control over some part of myself. My very essence remained intact, even if stripped down to a raw version without any frills.”

Whatever place you are at with a diagnosis of breast cancer, there are lessons to be learned. These will be unique to you; but you can also learn from those who have walked this path before you. Reach out to them, and lean on their experience to help make the way a little smoother for your own journey.