Why surviving breast cancer is just the start of the battle back to normality
Ahead of this October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Lisa Salmon looks at what life is like after the disease
Living after breast cancer is a much more common consideration than dying from the disease these days, thanks to massively improved survival rates. However, this isn't nearly as straightforward as it sounds.
Around 50,000 women and 400 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK, and it's estimated that one woman in eight will get the disease in her lifetime. An amazing 85% now survive beyond five years after diagnosis (around 12,000 women and 80 men die from breast cancer each year), thanks to factors including advances in research and treatments, screening and earlier diagnoses.
But, surviving isn't the end of the battle, as often post-cancer life is plagued by hidden side effects, and getting 'back to normal' is far more complex than people might expect.
This is what Breast Cancer Care's #hiddeneffects campaign aims to highlight, during this year's Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
This doesn't just include the well-known effects of cancer treatment, like hair-loss after chemotherapy, or physical changes after a mastectomy, but other problems, such as losing fingernails, the loss of fertility, early menopause, fatigue and weight gain.
Rachel Rawson, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, says: "There are so many people living a long life now after breast cancer, and we're much more aware that the side effects the treatment can give are long-lasting, and people really do struggle with them.
"When you've been through something so traumatic, often everyone expects you to get back to normal after the treatment, but many people don't feel like the person they were before it all started.
"I think that now, people feel they're more able to come forward and say it's not all right, and they want to do something about it."
There are also deep psychological challenges. Rawson explains that the charity frequently hears from women who are struggling with side effects linked to the emotional consequences of a diagnosis, like the loss of femininity and trying to regain body confidence after surgery, which can result in not feeling sexually attractive with a partner.
A huge problem for younger women can be the effect of chemotherapy on their fertility. The treatment can stop the ovaries from working, either permanently or temporarily, depending on the drugs used and the dosage, and Rawson explains that younger women should be referred to a fertility centre to decide whether there's a possibility of freezing embryos or preserving their fertility in some way.
"Many women tell us that this is just not happening," she says. "Women are not getting support or information at this crucial time, and they're not getting access to services that could potentially save their fertility for the future."
Early diagnosis is still absolutely crucial for the best chances of surviving breast cancer, so getting any changes checked out immediately is vital.
Coppafeel! is hoping to help the message hit home this year, with their #whatnormalfeelslike advertising campaign featuring women's bare breasts. The full frontal photographs of breasts painted with words that describe how they feel to each woman, like 'squidgy', 'spongy' and 'bobbly', are being displayed in the press throughout October.
The idea is that the photographs will help normalise and desexualise breasts, and help women reclaim the vocabulary surrounding them, so they can be confident in describing what normal breasts feel like – and therefore what they feel like when there may be a problem.
Join the pink parade
In October, several charities are encouraging people to hold pink-themed parties to raise money for breast cancer research.
- Breast Cancer Care's Pink Fridays - Pick a Friday and raise money by doing things like getting colleagues to wear pink to work and make a donation, or organise a pink night in at home, donating what you'd normally spend on a night out to Breast Cancer Care instead. Visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk
- Breast Cancer Campaign's Wear it Pink - On Friday, October 24, the charity is asking people to wear pink clothes and make donations. Give your fundraising efforts a boost by organising pink-themed events and games at work, school and at home, such as pink bake sales. Visit www.breastcancercampaign.org