Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in the USA according to the American Cancer Society. The number is expected to rise within the next 5-10 years. Although the disease is more likely to occur in women carrying the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene or with a family history of the disease, sporadic cases exist. This information comes with an understandable baggage of fear and anxiety. But, it also comes with an appeal to all women. More often than not, you might have experienced your mothers, fathers, aunts or uncles reluctance to get an all-around health check-up because “everything is fine” or “nothing seems wrong”.
This isn’t uncommon. As humans, we have an inherent tendency to not pay attention to things that aren’t tangible – things we don’t see or feel. If symptoms of a health issue are noticeable – say joint pains, we immediately give it attention. But breast cancers can start with few to almost no symptoms. Hence, getting oneself checked seems without cause. Not paying heed to something that ‘could’ happen, or something that we can’t ‘see’ or ‘feel’, is an epidemic in itself.
Exempting ourselves from possibilities that apply to us, also adds to the problem. Thinking that one day someone you love could be diagnosed with cancer might be incomprehensible. Co-relating or associating the 2 words is difficult for many because it is too striking or frightening. We say “It won’t happen to me”.
My mother was recently diagnosed with a sporadic case of breast cancer (there is no history of the disease in the family). After her diagnosis, 3 women in the family got themselves checked.
They didn’t associate with the disease and didn’t take statistics seriously enough to follow measures. But, a firsthand experience changed the dynamic and the unrelenting reality seemed probable. This is a behaviour commonly observed in many spheres – and it continues to take shape in health and wellness.
Do we have to wait for someone close to us to get diagnosed to begin looking after ourselves?
1. Thinking “It could be me” is scary and painful. But using it as an invitation to get check-ups regularly and pay attention to symptoms, means it can do more good than harm. Following guidelines from medical agencies to get required check-ups is helpful. If breast cancer is in someone’s books, regular check-ups that could result in an early diagnosis will change “it could be me” to “it was me”, or “it won’t be me”. We need to be precautious.
2. Some of our family members or parents are reluctant to get checked. If your mother or any female in your family falls in the category in which check-ups can be conducted and symptoms may be identifiable, take the responsibility upon yourself to have them follow guidelines from medical practitioners, however reluctant they may be.
1. Give yourself time to feel sad and scared. But try to limit this to a phase. There are powerful things that can be learnt from the experience if you allow yourself to. In fact, I believe the best way to deal with pain is to give it purpose.
In my experience, I learnt about God and spirituality. These were ideas I had previously dismissed as visions of the cowardly. I also learnt the power of science and medicine have to transform a single life and hence generations. I found myself looking up, saying “Please” the night before my mother’s biopsy results were to come out, and saying “Thank you” when I heard her voice after surgery. I saw the gratitude and respect patients showed doctors when they walked the halls of the hospital. Looking back, it is intriguing how my experience revamped by beliefs so profoundly.
What happens to someone you love isn’t in your control, but what you make of your experience can be.
2. Prioritize her happiness and comfort. Going through treatment is emotionally and physically challenging. Surrounding her with positive energy and an overall optimistic environment goes a long way.
Watch TV shows or movies that make her laugh. Try to avoid sad ones when the mood already seems tense. We generally perceive actions as a result of emotions, but it works in reverse as well. Laughing can spark a change in the way someone feels too.
Although there are plenty of restrictions on diet, there are some dishes you can create with some extra effort. Ice cream sundaes with biscuits and chocolate, steamed vegetables, homemade – pizza, cakes and custards are some clean and healthy options. (Be sure to check what foods are permitted)
Have positive and optimistic conversations not just about the disease and what she is experiencing. Talk about topics that excite her – fashion, science, art, or politics. These conversations give her a sense of normalcy and also act as a distraction from continuous demotivating thoughts.
Think about the impact of what you say before saying it. You might want to avoid sensitive information like – “My friend’s relative died of cancer at age 30” or “cancer is a scam the government created” or “there is no cure for cancer”. Keeping her around family or friends who are supportive and positive is important.
It is understandable that you are concerned about her well-being, but don’t smother her. Independence is empowering. Being dependent especially for those who exercise a lot more independence than the average person is emotionally challenging. If she wants to do something that wouldn’t cause her harm, let her go ahead.
3. Every person has a different way of dealing with the news. For some, it may be through activism, and for some it might be by avoiding the word ‘cancer’ itself. Although you might not agree with her coping mechanism, if she is happy and comfortable with it, don’t enforce your ideas on her. If the approach she chooses is doing her more harm, try to gently guide her on a path suitable to her personality and outlook.
4. Breast cancer is a disease with several variables. Sometimes, the Internet doesn’t cover them all. Try to understand most of the disease from a doctor and not the Internet. This allows for case specific information and not generalizations. Before you believe or follow anything on the internet, fact-check it with a doctor.
5. The side effects of chemotherapy are subjective. It differs from person to person based on their overall physical well-being, age, medicine, dosage of medicine, etc. When you meet someone going through chemotherapy, you could avoid sharing with them side-effects you have heard of from unsolicited sources. It saves the person starting treatment from unnecessary anticipations, anxiety or fear. There is a set of symptoms the patient is oriented with by doctors before treatment so they are familiar with potential effects. The extra information from unqualified sources may do more harm than good.
6. It is easy for this disease to come in the way of your relationship with her. It could either bring you closer to her or take you farther from her. I don’t think that it is any one’s place to tell you what is right and wrong. But my advice is – take a step back after hearing the news. Think about how you feel and how she feels. Letting her in means you are going to be vulnerable when situations get tough. Distancing yourself from her could mean you would feel lesser pain. It is going to be more hurtful for her if you jump in and out of the relationship, or if you walk from her when the journey gets harder. If you decide to stay close to her, giving her your continuous support, and letting her in your heart completely allows her to build faith and trust in your presence.
Breast cancer is a journey of tribulations and challenges. Empathy and support go a long way.
Thank you, Amma for teaching me that beauty lies in strength and spirit.
Thank you, Amma for teaching me to share stories for change, not sympathy.