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As research increasingly shows high breast cancer rates in Indian women, we will all know a breast cancer survivor in our lives. How can we help?
By Aanandika Sood
A recent study on breast cancer risk in Indian women shows that 1 in 28 women develop breast cancer during their lifetime. It also revealed that women in urban India are more at risk where 1 in 22 is susceptible to breast cancer.
Another alarming find of the study is that there is an age shift and breast cancer in younger Indian women is visible. Here, women in the age group of 43-46 years have been found at high risk as compared to women in the West where its occurrence has been noted amongst women in the age group of 53-57 years.
At the end of the day, a cancer diagnosis is bound to create a whirlwind of emotions for anyone. “The news of breast cancer is almost always shocking and having to undergo surgery of the breast, mastectomy or less radical surgeries, can both have a symbolic and real significance to a woman. As breasts may represent femininity and nurturance to some women, having a surgery on them may lead to psychological distress and identity problems,” says Dr. Soumitra S Datta, Consultant Psychiatrist, Department of Palliative Care and Psycho Oncology at Tata Medical Centre, Kolkata.
Needless to say that it is a sensitive matter and that if you know a breast cancer survivor who has had to undergo this life altering procedure, it is important to be attuned to their emotional health. Following are a few suggestions that will aid you, to help that special woman, in accepting her body and moving on:
– Provide emotional support and a hand of friendship whenever possible: Getting diagnosed with cancer is stressful. Some people cope better than others specially when there are compassionate friends willing to walk an extra mile. To provide support at this time is immensely important. It’s often enough to be there to listen to someone’s troubles and providing reassurances and practical help.
– Act as a sounding board: Breast cancer involves endless decisions before and after. In India the decisions are often made by the husbands and fathers and women often have less say in the matter as opposed to the West. In case your friend is lucky enough to choose the course of action she will still need someone to bounce off her thoughts; someone who does not judge the choices that she makes but shows her that she/ he is with her in whatever she chooses to do.
– Offer specific help: Dr S.S. Data (quoted earlier) suggests that instead of just saying, ‘Let me know if you need any help’, recognise the fact that it isn’t easy to ask for help. So if you really intend to help, offer it in a specific manner. You might choose to help with laundry or cooking or dropping/ picking the kids from the school or simply offer to walk the dog. Being specific will ease your friend’s life and it will be one thin g off her mind. But before offering to help, please take a good look at your own time table and only take on the responsibilities that you know you will be able to shoulder for a long time as the recovery from this set back usually takes time. You can mobilise help from the neighbours and other friends or can scan the local services to help her with the household chores.
– Creating a support structure: It will help a breast cancer survivor a great deal knowing that she is not alone. If you can generate support by getting her in touch with other survivors, it will be a big moral boost. Dr S.S. Datta is of the opinion that a woman who has undergone mastectomy might find it easier to talk to and relate to someone who has experienced the pain and anxiety that she might be going through herself. Knowing that other women too have had similar experiences and have lived to tell the tale can help your friend in dealing with the physical and emotional effect of mastectomy better, he adds.
– Be watchful: If you are a caregiver, then acquaint yourself with symptoms of depression as there might arise a need of professional intervention at some time. Dr. Datta lists low mood at all times, fatigue and anhedonia as core symptoms. Other pointers include lack of concentration, decreased sleep and decreased libido. He says that if these symptoms persist beyond two weeks then the patient must be brought in for consultation with a psychiatrist.
Depression is a curable illness with treatment and asking for professional help can be of immense help in the journey of a woman towards complete recovery. This consultation, for mastectomy patients, generally includes helping them to isolate breasts from the concept of femininity and providing therapy to help them deal with any issues regarding self image.
– Focus on the positive: The ravages of mastectomy are not just physical. The self-esteem of a breast cancer survivor who has been through this is often the worst casualty. She might start to perceive herself as less attractive; hence, it is important for her friends and family to help her focus on the other positive things in her life such as her children, a job she loves or even the house that she has decorated beautifully. According to Dr. Datta, friends, partners and family should not treat her as impaired in any way and should continue to take her for outings, dinners and movies as was usual before the surgery.
– Don’t say ‘It is okay’: It is not okay and you know it. She is not okay and she knows it. So instead of giving her false reassurances, tell her that she will get through this. If you have known her for a long time, you may remind her of some other difficult situation that she had been able to overcome owing to the strengths of her personality be it fortitude or a keen sense of humour. Show her the person that she is beyond the body. Help her along the way by reminding her of this unique person often.
– Encourage her to open up about her feelings: The patient goes through many emotions such as shock, sadness, anger and depression, says Dr. Datta. It is not easy for everyone to confront these demons on their own. Some breast cancer survivors might become tight-lipped fearing being shunned. Hence it is important that such a person be consistently encouraged to either talk or write about how they feel about the whole procedure to give vent to the mixed emotions. Keeping a diary or a journal also will help her clear her head and get a better grip on her life. This will help make space within to infuse them with new energies and helping them to move on.
Help her by doing things that she loves. Buy her lovely head scarves, help her choose a prosthetic bra, help her find the best place to buy a wig or simply take her to a movie. Weave a strong network of a social support system and be by her side to tell her over and over again that she is worthy of all love and attention.
*Photo credit: Jennie Ivins (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
Aanandika Sood aspires to be the rolling stone that gathers a lot of moss. After
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