To celebrate the importance of World Cancer Day, we sat down with David Crosby, Director of Services and Engagement at Breast Cancer Care to talk about the links between two of the most pressing issues in public health: cancer and mental wellbeing.
Q: Can you tell me about Breast Cancer Care and your recent wellbeing campaigns?
Breast Cancer Care is the only specialist UK wide charity providing support for women, men, family and friends affected by breast cancer. The charity has been caring for them, and campaigning on their behalf since 1973. We are committed to this as breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, 1 in 8 women will develop the disease in their lifetime.
We know that people affected by breast cancer have many different needs and concerns. There are different aspects, including diagnoses, prognoses, treatments and life circumstances, so we’ve designed support services to meet people’s needs. Breast Cancer Care wants to reach as many of those who need support as possible, and make sure they know they’re not alone.
Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis and going through treatment can have a devastating impact, not just on people’s bodies, but their emotional wellbeing too, and some effects can be long-lasting. This is why we recently took a stand with the charity Mind to make support for people’s mental health a priority.
Breast Cancer Care commissioned a landmark survey of nearly 3,000 women with breast cancer in England about the long term effects of the disease. It revealed that a third (33%) experience anxiety for the first time in their lives after their diagnosis and treatment. Almost half (45%) experience continuous fear that the cancer may return, which can severely impact day-to-day life. And it also found that a fifth (19%) of women with breast cancer experience social isolation after their hospital treatment ends.
We know that, in particular, as the routine of hospital appointments suddenly ends, women with breast cancer can often feel alone, without adequate support and unsure where to find help. At a time they expect to feel better, for many it can be devastating to find it the hardest part. This is why it’s crucial people have a conversation about their mental health at the end of treatment so they can get the support they need, at the right time.
This January we also launched an online self-care toolkit for women with breast cancer to help offer easy access to reliable information on managing wellbeing, like diet and exercise, as well as mental health support.
Q: Why is addressing wellbeing in cancer patients so important?
Even though many of the physical effects of breast cancer treatment can be temporary, some do last much longer. And however long they last they can be very upsetting and have a significant impact on how people see their body. Especially because changes, like hair loss after chemotherapy, can be an outward sign of having cancer and may make someone feel they have lost a sense of identity.
While for some women surgery doesn’t affect how they feel about themselves, many others find the changes more difficult to accept. They may feel unfeminine or unattractive and their confidence and self-esteem can be affected, which can have a knock-on effect on other areas of life. It is also not uncommon for people to feel their body has let them down.
On our Helpline, we also hear from women about the anxieties they experience about the cancer returning, as well as debilitating long-term side effects, like pain or fatigue, that have reduced their confidence, or prevented them from being able to return to work. Especially after coming to the end of treatment, when loved ones may expect someone to go back to the person they were before they were diagnosed, facing challenges can leave people feeling incredibly lonely and isolated.
The sense of worry or dread breast cancer can often bring can get in the way of daily life, which is why it’s so important women know there is support available. A big benefit of our group support services, like our Moving Forward course, is the importance of being able to share experiences with others in a similar situation in a safe and caring environment. This is regularly highlighted by those who attend. Bringing women together to talk openly creates a crucial support network.
Q: Can you tell me about breast cancer in young women and the effect on identity?
Breast cancer is not common in younger women, in the UK fewer than 6,000 women aged 45 and under are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. So it’s unlikely they will meet anyone of a similar age at the breast clinic or while having treatment, which can be very isolating.
A breast cancer diagnosis can mean younger women will have to make decisions about their future much earlier than they would have otherwise, and can have a major impact on young families and careers. These concerns about family, fertility, career and sexuality are not always the same as those experienced by older women.
Sometimes in younger women, breast cancer and its treatments can bring on early menopause. This may be distressing if someone is hoping to have children, and can feel like they’re ageing prematurely. Many women tell us they feel they are watching their friends move on with their lives from the sidelines.
We wanted to address the challenges women under 45 face meeting others who know what they’re going through. So Breast Cancer Care’s Younger Women Together events bring up to 40 younger women together at two day events. The events provide an opportunity to discuss issues that matter to them and hear the most up-to-date expert information and the chance to ask questions on topics like fertility preservation, relationships or managing menopausal symptoms. Women tell us it makes them feel like they’re not alone, and they realise so many of their concerns are shared by others so they feel understood.
Q: Where can people living with breast cancer access support?
Anyone looking for care, information and support can call Breast Cancer Care’s free Helpline on 0808 800 6000 or visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk
Whether someone wants to speak to our nurses, attend a support service or connect with volunteers who have faced what they’re facing now, Breast Cancer Care can help you feel more in control, find support for you here.
Breast Cancer Care now also offer a support app, BECCA, which easily fits into everyday life and provides trustworthy and tailored information and support for people adapting to daily life once hospital treatment ends. And we were really honoured that BECCA was voted by the public Best Health Project in the National Lottery Awards 2018.