Women don’t stop being women when they are diagnosed with cancer by Jennifer Young, Founder of Beauty Despite Cancer Coming from a scientific background, Jennifer Young is an experienced microbiologist and associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, who decided to combine her knowledge …
Tag: breast cancer
This is another brilliant blog in the series from Confidence Coach, Allie Morgan (links to previous blogs are at the foot of this post). Allie is a Confidence Coach, working with cancer survivors and those with chronic illnesses. After overcoming bone cancer at the age …
In this guest blog, Natasha describes how she felt when she experienced hair loss through chemotherapy.
It’s just hair. It’ll grow back. It’s no big deal. I’d rather be bald than have cancer’
These are some of the things people said and, indeed, I told myself when I was having chemo.
And all of these things were true. It would grow back. Being bald was better than having cancer.
Yet it wasn’t really ‘just hair’ for me. It was about the loss of control. The fact of suddenly looking ill. Looking at myself in the mirror and watching the person I knew morph into someone else. Someone with no hair. No eyebrows. No eyelashes.
Being bald because your hair fell out as a result of illness is totally different to being bald because you chose to shave your head. That is a choice. Cancer takes away that choice.
To me it was an outward symbol of my illness, of the loss of control I felt. I dreaded it, even as I said ‘ It’s just hair’.
To try to take back some control, I cut my long hair into a pixie before chemo. I planned to go visit my wig specialist to have it cut back the day of my second chemo. I knew it was going, but I was determined it was going on my terms
Then my second chemo was delayed. My mastectomy wound was infected. I was in the hospital when my hair started coming out in handfuls. For four days I sat in a hospital bed, watching it fall. Handfuls on my dressing gown, my pillow, if I ran a comb through it it came away filled with hair. I had a shower and cried at the amount that went down the drain.
When I eventually got to the wig specialist about 75% of my hair was gone.
By then it was a relief to just cut it off , and yet even in the relief there was sadness. I was bald. I was having chemo. I really did have cancer, the nightmare was real.
And then it was gone. And I was bald. And you know something it was ok; it really was. I embraced wearing hats, matched them to my outfits, learned how to tie headscarves..
The hair on my head went first. Eyebrows and eyelashes disappeared slowly, over the course of several weeks. When I looked in the mirror and saw my bald head and bald face I barely recognised the person looking back at me.
And then it started to grow back. Slowly. Just a soft fuzz at first, then more and more. Eyelashes and eyebrows came back more quickly. I cannot describe the elation I felt the first day I put on mascara. Such a simple thing. Don’t take it for granted. I know I never will again.
If your loved one is starting chemo please be mindful of what you say regarding hair loss.
If they say it’s ‘just hair’ then fine, but please don’t say this to them if they are upset about their hair loss.
Listen to them. Be there for them. Grieve with them.
Because while it’s true it will grow back, it really isn’t ‘just hair’ at all.
For advice, tips and links to resources for hair loss through chemo, visit our hair loss support page.
This is a guest blog from Cathy Leman who is a registered dietitian, personal trainer, nutrition therapist, speaker, writer and survivor of ER/PR+ breast cancer. A common belief in the breast cancer community, especially for women diagnosed with hormonally-driven cancer, is that certain foods will …
I was so excited when Sara asked me if I would like to guest blog. I find, and I know it is the same for others, that it is really helpful to read other people’s stories.
I thought long and hard about what to focus this blog on and decided to share some positive effects my diagnosis had. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from being in the cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me squad. If I’m going to be frank, it’s the bloody worst thing that happened to me! But like with most things, a positive can usually be found even in the direst of circumstances.
I was diagnosed with a hormone receptive breast cancer (I honestly have no clue which. There are two types of patients, those that learn everything about their illness and those that just turn up and do as they are told…I am the latter) in January 2015 at the age of 39. A PET scan showed that I had bone mets. The cancer was apparently aggressive and treatment needed to start immediately. I don’t suppose there is ever a good time to be diagnosed with cancer but my wedding was in August 2015 so the timing really ticked me off!
I had 16 rounds of chemo over a five and half month period, finishing just 3 weeks before the wedding. Wearing a wig on my wedding day was not really the dream, but hey ho. A few weeks later I had a lumpectomy, but the margins were not clear, so I was sent back in for a mastectomy, spending my 40th birthday in the hospital. I’d like to say I took it on the chin, after all, the removal of your cancer is so important. I can confirm I sulked for most of the day, only cheering up when my family piled in to see me, including my parents who flew up from Tanzania for two nights to surprise me.
When I expressed sadness to my doctor that I would be stuck in the bed when they all went out for dinner on MY birthday, he told me it wasn’t prison! I didn’t need to be told twice!!! Cue washing and styling my 3 cms of hair and sashaying off to the restaurant with my three surgical drains. I say sashay…it was all I could do to stay upright, but I’ve always been a bit of a FOMO (fear of missing out).
The year was topped off with 5 weeks of radiotherapy and then hormone treatment. As I have mets, I will be on treatment for the rest of my life. Always hoping that the drugs WILL work and when they stop that there is something else that can be tried. I’m 3 weeks in to the latest effort, which has some not so charming side effects. To top everything off, my ovaries were removed and we lost our chance to have the babies we so desperately wanted.
So, what next? I really struggled to find the items I needed during treatment, recovery and beyond, such as beautiful bras. Since I had always had a dream to work for myself, I built a small business to source beautiful, feminine but practical items – along with the lingerie, pretty head scarves and drain bags – as a one stop shop for women with breast cancer. A pleasant place to browse and shop, away from the medical and sterile options that I felt were all we really had access to. Simply Zoë was born!
This evolved into a joint venture with a friend, where we are dedicated to raising awareness and funds to support cancer research! Together we created, Fearless. our exclusive collection of t-shirts and a shopping tote (a hoodie is coming soon!) for all women to unite in the fight to find a cure for cancer.
Having been made redundant last year, quickly followed by spread to my liver which has any way resulted in long term sick leave, I have been able to devote more time to Simply Zoë which is so energising. To know we can raise money to support cancer research, producing items that women love to wear and love to participate in the cause is even more energising, even better, to work on such an exciting project with one of my best friends is wonderful.
Being made redundant and having progression of illness is not the best news. But having the time, when the energy allows, to be able to work on a project that is dear to me and to be able to spend time outside in nature, walking, keeping my body strong so that cancer is kept at arm’s length is imperative to me. I’m lucky that I have the time and space to work on what empowers and energises me and to be able to take the exercise I need which is so important, especially with an illness like cancer. See, I told you there would be positives!
Zoë Zenklusen Payne of Simply Zoë www.simplyzoe.ch, a Swiss/British national, raised in Shropshire UK, living in Geneva, Switzerland
A guest blog by Dr. Ramon Garza III of PRMA Plastic Surgery, Texas What is lymphedema? Lymphedema of the arm is a complication that can occur after undergoing breast cancer treatment. Patients most at risk for lymphedema are those who have had lymph nodes removed …
What are my breast reconstruction options? If you have been recommended to have a mastectomy, you can also choose to have a reconstruction. You don’t have to go down this path if you don’t want to, but if you do, then there are a few …
I need breast cancer surgery, but what are my options?
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, no doubt you would have been presented with a huge amount of information, leaflets to read and decisions to make. It can be overwhelming and at times perhaps even confusing.
You probably know that breast cancer treatment involves many modalities; surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiotherapy and endocrine treatment.
Below I will give an overview of the types of surgeries available, the reasons behind their recommendations and the different factors you may need to consider before going ahead with your surgery.
So broadly speaking, there are two types of breast cancer surgery. The first type is breast conservation surgery (also known as lumpectomy / wide local excision) where only the area of cancer is removed and the rest of the breast is preserved. The second is a mastectomy where the entire breast is removed.
There are certain indications and considerations as to why one type of surgery is recommended over another.
Why have I been recommended to have a lumpectomy / wide local excision?
If the size of your cancer is relatively small, it is likely you will be offered a lumpectomy / wide local excision. If the cancer was detected on a mammogram and is not palpable, then we will localise the cancer using either a wire or magnetic seed to help the surgeon find it at the time of the operation.
If you are generously breasted and have a small cancer, you may be offered what is called a therapeutic mammaplasty. This is still a lumpectomy, but it is done as a breast reduction operation. This operation will result in a smaller and uplifted breast.
The other breast may also have the same reduction surgery to achieve symmetry. This can either be done at the same time as the cancer operation or further down the line once you have completed your cancer treatment. This type of surgery is more invasive compared to a traditional lumpectomy and results in longer and more extensive scars.
The aim of breast conservation surgery is to remove the cancer with a good margin of normal breast tissue surrounding it. Should the cancer be close to the edge of the specimen, then a second operation is needed to remove more breast tissue. This decision however can only be made after the first specimen has been analysed by the pathologist. If you need further surgery, this will be done normally a few weeks after the first one.
As the rest of the breast is preserved, radiotherapy is likely to be recommended to protect the breast from cancer recurrence in the future.
The advantages of having a lumpectomy is of course you keep your breast with intact sensation. The surgery is well tolerated and recovery time is quick.
The possible disadvantages include:
1. The need for further surgery should margins be close
2. Radiotherapy will be recommended which involves coming to the hospital every day for a period of time
3. Possible change in breast shape, although with modern surgical techniques this is minimised
Why have I been recommended to have a mastectomy?
The indications for a mastectomy include:
1) Large cancer in comparison to breast size.
2) Multifocal breast cancer (i.e. more than one cancer located in different areas of the breast)
3) Inflammatory breast cancer
4) Increased risk e.g. BRCA1 / BRCA2 mutation gene carrier
5) Recurrent cancer
6) Patient choice
When you have a mastectomy (simple mastectomy), the entire breast is removed including the overlying skin of the breast and the nipple areolar complex. This will result in a flat chest and a scar that will extend across the chest wall. You will lose sensation and the chest wall will be numb.
Although the surgery may sound very extensive, the recovery time following a mastectomy is usually relatively quick and the surgery is well tolerated.
The need for radiotherapy is greatly reduced if you have a mastectomy, unlike with breast conservation surgery where radiotherapy will be required.
To achieve symmetry, you can have a prosthesis that you can place in your bra so you can have a shape of a breast when fully clothed.
Some may think that having a mastectomy means that the chances of getting a recurrence is completely removed. Whilst the risk is lower compared to if you had a lumpectomy, a mastectomy does not completely remove that risk, and you can still get a recurrence along the chest wall.
The disadvantages of a simple mastectomy over a lumpectomy:
1. You lose your breast along with the sensation
2. Recovery time may be slightly longer
3. Some women may develop chronic pain following a mastectomy
If you have been recommended to have a mastectomy, you can also choose to have a reconstruction. You don’t have to go down this path if you don’t want to, but if you do, then there are a few options.
Isn’t a mastectomy better for long term survival?
We know that there is no significant survival difference between patients who have a lumpectomy and radiotherapy versus those who have a mastectomy.
There is however a slightly increased risk of local recurrence in those who have a lumpectomy.
What about lymph node surgery?
If your axilla / armpit scan was normal, then at the time of your breast surgery, you will have a few of your lymph nodes removed at the same time. This is called a sentinel lymph node biopsy and it is to make sure that the cancer has not started to spread to your glands, despite the normal scan.
If at the time of your diagnosis, you have a gland that was biopsied and tested positive for cancer cells, then it is likely you will have all of your axillary lymph glands removed at the time of your surgery. This is called an axillary nodal clearance.
Being told you have breast cancer is life changing. The moment you get that diagnosis, your thoughts are racing, you will experience a wide ranging of emotions and you may feel lost and confused.
It is important to take your time in making any decision regarding your treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask your surgeon any questions you may have. Voice your concerns and worries and do involve your breast care nurse as well.
If you are unsure about what decision to take, try to speak to others who have gone through the same surgical path.
We are here to help you through your cancer treatment. It is important for you to be fully informed so that you are completely satisfied and happy with the decision you make.
Tasha Gandamihardja is an oncoplastic breast surgeon and podcaster. You can check her out at mybreastmyhealth.com. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @DrTashaG.
Please note that I, Sara Liyanage posting this as Ticking Off Breast Cancer, do not accept responsibility for the content of the guest blogs. The information and content provided in all guest blogs is intended for information and educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice. Please seek professional advice or speak to your medical team if you have any questions about the issues raised in this guest blog.
This is another brilliant blog in the series from Confidence Coach, Allie Morgan (see here for her other guest blogs: How to Rebuild Your Confidence After Cancer and How to Talk to Others About Your Cancer). Allie is a Confidence Coach, working with cancer survivors and …
This article is based on a talk delivered by Dr. Colette Hirsch in conjunction with Keeping Abreast in October 2020. Dr Colette Hirsch is a Reader in Cognitive Clinical Psychology at King’s College London and a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma. One of her current research projects is a trial of a new online intervention to build resilience in women who been treated for breast cancer.
For many women with breast cancer, going through treatment, whatever the outcome, comes along with a rollercoaster of emotions. Even after treatment has ended while there may be a sense of relief that treatment is over, low mood and worry often remain present, or even emerge for the first time. Despite feeling down or worried at times many women living with and beyond breast cancer find ways to focus on other areas of their life and adjust to a “new normal”. One of the factors that enables someone to focus aspects of life other than their cancer can be their level of resilience.
What is resilience?
Resilience is an ability to adjust and continue functioning OK after a traumatic life event, such as being diagnosed with and treated for cancer. Being resilient is not about hiding how you feel, or not feeling sad or anxious, but rather it is about being able to feel the full range of emotions when you need to and also focus on other parts of your life when you want to. So, resilience is linked to better quality of life.
Research shows that in women who have survived breast cancer, higher levels of resilience are linked to feeling less stressed, worried, anxious or low. Resilience is often accompanied by more positive emotions like joy and happiness, as well as people being optimistic, and flexible when dealing with changes.
Can we build resilience?
The good news is that resilience is not a trait, but a process within everyone that fluctuates.
Some people will be more resilient in certain contexts or situations, and everyone finds their resilience changes, even in relation to the same situation over time. That means that resilience can be developed at any stage!
Whilst there are some things that we can’t change, such as our genetic make-up, or previous negative life experiences, other factors associated with resilience can be developed, for example training resilient thinking strategies or developing new coping strategies. These skills are aimed to help people adapt and move on and not fall into the traps of extended low mood, persistent anxiety and unhelpful negativity.
How can we build resilience?
Experiencing a major life event like breast cancer and going back to day to day life after treatment has ended is not an easy task. However, by learning from people who are naturally more resilient and understanding what they do may help others become more resilient themselves. Many psychological and social factors help foster resilience. Everyone is unique and different things will help different people at different times. You might find the below helpful:
- Building a social support network
It’s always good to have friends or family members to could reach out to when things are difficult. This could involve building on relationships you already have and developing new ones. This could include, for example, childhood friends or new people you’ve met during treatment. There are lots of different organisations, both cancer-related and non-cancer related, online and in-person (covid-permitting) that provide great opportunities to build a network of people who you could reach out to for support. www.cancercaremap.org could be a great place to start.
- Keeping things in perspective
Perhaps easier said than done, especially since stressful situations make it difficult to keep things in perspective, but if you’re caught up in day-to-day worries or concerns trying to keep the bigger picture in mind, or thinking about what you would say to someone else in your position can help.
- Accepting change
Accepting and acknowledging the challenge that you experienced during your treatment can help you cope. Similarly, after treatment ends things may have changed for you; maybe your work, your body or your relationships with family or friends could have changed. It can be helpful to try and accept that some things might be different and try and find new ways of doing the things that matter the most to you, rather than dwelling on the past. How about spending some time writing a list of everything you’ve achieved in the last two weeks or month? The achievements don’t have to be big; they could be as simple as cooking a favourite meal or remembering to send a birthday message to someone.
- Having realistic goals
Post treatment one of the ways to bring structure in your life is by having realistic goals. It is nice to have something to look forward to once the weight and purpose of the treatment is lifted off your back. These goals can give you a sense of purpose, binding you to the present and now. Achieving these goals, brings about a sense of accomplishment and it’s important to celebrate every victory and step along the way (no matter how small it may seem!) You could try thinking about something you’ve always wanted to do, and then breaking this down into smaller, manageable and achievable goals that you could start to tick off as you work towards your big goal?
- Being kind to yourself.
It is very important to be kind and understanding to oneself. Trying to develop a compassionate, positive and warm way of speaking to ourselves can help us to feel secure and comfortable. We need to realise that we are only human and after going through such a difficult experience we deserve to take a break, slow down and be kind to ourselves and our bodies for carrying us through. If you notice self-critical thoughts creeping in try asking yourself “would I say the same thing to a friend that I’m saying to myself right now?” or “would anyone else reasonably expect of me what I’m expecting of myself?”
- Getting your basics right.
You have been through a really draining experience and it’s important to take a pause and think about what you need to do to care for yourself and your body. Self-care can support your mental and physical health. Self-care is a bit of a buzzword these days, but it’s important to recognize that it doesn’t need to mean fancy candles and spa days. It can be simple things that prioritise your well-being like:
- Eating regularly and choosing healthy food.
- Exercising regularly (to the best of your abilities).
- Making an extra effort to improve the quality of your sleep. For example by; not using screens close to bedtime, having a regular nighttime routine that helps you relax and fall asleep more easily and avoiding caffeine later in the day.
- Having a routine in your day to give you structure. Trying to keep a good balance between things that give you a sense of achievement or productivity, things that keep you connected to others, things that you enjoy and find fun and things that feel restful.
These factors could really help bolster resilience and put you back in touch with the things that matter to you the most.
We know some people may need more help to bolster their resilience. Our team have developed a new online programme to help foster resilience in women living beyond breast cancer. We plan to adapt this for those currently in treatment and those with recurrence in the future, once we know the approach can help women. We are currently looking for women living beyond breast cancer to help us work out how women find the treatment. If you might be interested in helping us with this please read more about it below.
Our research team is trialing a new online intervention to foster resilience to decrease low mood and anxiety in women who have completed their treatment for breast cancer.
The FRAME Project, short for Finding Resilient Answers More Effectively, allows participants to trial a fully online and easy intervention over a span of three weeks. It involves 10 half hour sessions of listening to scenarios and responding to questions.
We’re looking for women who are based in the UK, over 18 years of age, have completed their cancer treatment within the last 3 years and have not had, or do not currently have, secondary cancer.
For more information and registration, visit www.frameproject.co.uk or email the team at
Whilst 2020 has been a terrible year for everyone thanks to COVID-19, cancer has continued impact the lives of so many people. Which means that it’s been more important that ever to provide support and advice for those going through breast cancer treatment and those …
This is a great blog post from the brilliant Laura giving friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances some excellent advice on what NOT to say to someone with breast cancer. “So you get a free boob job?…” Until you have heard the words “you’ve got cancer” …