In 1982, Parvaty Ramanathan at 38 was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. It was in an advanced stage and options for treatment of breast cancer were very limited. She underwent mastectomy. Parvaty survived. Recalling that dark period in her life 36 years later, she describes the panic, fear and depression that had gripped her then.
“These days, at least people do talk about it. Only my husband knew about it and one or two close relatives. But we couldn’t talk about it much. I didn’t even tell my daughters, until much later when I had recovered. I used to feel terribly lonely all the time. I thought I had done something wrong somewhere that this could happen to me. I had delayed diagnosis ignoring breast cancer symptoms as far as I could, because I was scared how my husband would react. There was no question of telling anyone else. Thankfully, my husband was sympathetic and supportive, but even to him, I could not talk about what I was going through.”
A part-time school teacher, Parvaty stopped work, avoided friends, and limited her social activities. The loss of her breasts left her feeling somehow incomplete, though she knew that was the only way she could conquer the disease.
Depression and a feeling of isolation is what most women, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, go through. Panic and anxiety are almost always there and this can become aggravated if there is not enough emotional support from within the family. There is also a feeling of being overwhelmed, and total helplessness. As Parvaty said, “I felt nothing was within my control.”
For women, signs of breast cancer have a unique mental anxiety associated with it. Breasts are an important part of a women’s femininity, her identity, and even her sexuality. It is also associated with motherhood. When threatened with the loss or disfigurement of a vital part of her anatomy, women feel all the more depressed. This leads to denial and delay in diagnosis. Even when they are sure of surviving the cancer, they often think about how it is going to affect them sexually, their marriage prospects, having children, how their spouses will react and what long-term impact it is going to have on their lives.
For those undergoing chemotherapy, there is the added stress of losing hair and changes in their appearance. Early menopause is one of the side-effects of chemotherapy, and for a young woman who is thinking of starting a family or getting married, this can be a terrible blow.
The other major concern is that of recurrence of cancer. This never goes away, despite the passage of years.
For those diagnosed with cancer, undergoing treatment and post-treatment, it is very important to talk about it. There are women who may like to deal with it on their own, but it helps to talk especially with other women who have survived the cancer.
Most of all, it is important to talk to family members. Their support is extremely important. Breast cancer is not an infectious disease, it will not contaminate people, and there should be no stigma associated with having it – any more than any other type of cancer. Family members of cancer patients need to show sensitivity. In fact, it is important to be as normal as possible, and include the afflicted member in all the usual activities. Emotional support is critical, because cancer patients often feel that they are totally alone in a world that has suddenly become hostile.
If family support is not forthcoming (for any reason), cancer patients and survivors need to reach out to external support in the form of support groups and cancer survivors’ organisations such as the Pink Initiative.
While it is normal to feel like your world has turned upside down, it is crucial to remain positive and take control. Instead of thinking about the things that you can’t do, think about what you can do. Yes, doctor visits, chemo sessions disrupt your life and there is the persistent fear of infections. But don’t let that stop you from having a fully active life. Keep busy, learn something new, develop new hobbies, become a counsellor for others suffering from it, understand more about the disease. Knowledge is power and as you gain more knowledge and awareness, you get more control.
Most of all, remain positive. It is difficult, but if the treatment has to work, you need your mind to give it complete support.