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7 Things I’ve Learnt about Resilience
Laura is a third-year trainee clinical psychologist at King's College London. She's currently on a clinical placement within a psycho-oncology support team and has a keen interest in supporting people affected by cancer.
Working on a research project to develop support for female breast cancer survivors* to foster resilience has been an eye-opening and humbling experience. I feel honoured that I’m trusted with raw and honest accounts of cancer and it’s heart-warming to know that women want to give back and help other people.
I’ve learnt so much about what it means to be resilient from these remarkable women. Mission Remission invited me to share their thoughts and advice with you:
1) Keeping the bigger picture in mind
Breast cancer inevitably becomes part of a person’s story... but it’s not the whole story.
Cancer can come out of nowhere, often at the most inconvenient time. It causes havoc in a person’s life. Women have told me about how cancer impacts their physical and mental health, their body, their career, their relationships... the list goes on.
But there’s something that feels different about the way more resilient women tell their cancer story. Women high in resilience seem to have processed and contextualised their experience of cancer within bigger stories of themselves.
It seems that it can be helpful to put breast cancer into context, see the bigger picture of who you are and your achievements and remember plans for the future.
2) Breast cancer doesn’t affect people equally
As a white woman, hearing the stories of women from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women were particularly powerful. Something new to me were the feelings of shame and taboo surrounding cancer that are more common in BAME communities.
From a very practical perspective the choice and availability of wigs and breast prosthetics for BAME people is inadequate. I have heard some horror stories from BAME people talking about their experiences of planning for breast reconstruction who experienced judgements about the size, shape or colour of nipples that they chose as right for their body.
Furthermore, given the unique aspects of BAME people’s experiences of cancer some women described finding it hard to find people to relate to their experiences and finding it harder to access formal and informal support networks, which seem more accessible to white people.
There are people building communities and networks campaigning for improvements within health services, for example, Leanne Pero who founded Black Women Rising, produced the UK’s first Black female cancer exhibition to raise awareness about cancer in Black women.
3) Turning to people who “get it” helps
Time and time again women told me that it was talking to others who had experienced breast cancer that got them through difficult times. It was so important to be understood, to be heard and to feel that you wouldn’t be judged.
Women described all sorts of wonderful, creative ways of connecting with others. Including joining social media support groups, following the journeys of people they could relate to on Instagram and even starting their own blogs or vlogs. Not to mention meeting others at support groups or cancer centres, reaching out to family or friends who’ve had similar experiences or even staying in touch with those who they met through treatment.
4) Sometimes disruption helps us rethink what’s most important to us
Something I remember reading about in preparation for this project is ‘post traumatic growth’. It’s the idea that a traumatic experience can make us stop and re-evaluate our lives and perhaps rethink what’s important to us.
Whilst this isn’t something that everyone I’ve spoken to has experienced, it’s something that has come up.
In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) psychologists talk about identifying your values (working out what’s important to you) and being committed to live in line with your values (even when it’s difficult) as this promotes well-being.
5) Worry and low mood following treatment for breast cancer is common
Several women spoke about how re-adjusting to life after cancer was difficult. When they were having treatment life revolved around their cancer, from daily visits to hospitals, to dealing with aggressive side effects and the sense that all conversations with friends and family seemed to revert back to cancer.
Not to mention that ‘normal’ life was on pause. Women told me that they would find themselves thinking, ‘Once I’ve got through surgery/ chemo/radiotherapy everything will go back to normal.’
However, when they completed treatment and the hospital appointments dramatically reduced, and family and friends gradually stopped talking about cancer, they were left with the emotional impact of what they had been through, and life still didn’t feel ‘normal’.
Other women talked about feeling guilty for surviving when others didn’t or experiencing a huge sense of loss and sadness about how cancer had changed them.
For some this resolved quickly, but for others this became full blown anxiety and/or depression that seeped into other aspects of life. Given the traumatic experience of having cancer and its treatment, it's no wonder that some people can experience anxiety and depression.
It is important to note that there are different things that can help if you do feel worried, anxious or low including medication or talking therapies. Your GP or cancer service can make recommendations.
6) You might discover how strong your body is
I was surprised by just how long the side-effects of curative treatment and the side effects of maintenance treatments can last. Many women talked about feeling weak and experiencing fatigue and some felt they needed to learn to trust their body again.
Whilst breaks and rests are important, I found it interesting that, when the time was right, lots of women were inspired to take on physical challenges. It felt almost as though they needed to test out and discover how strong and resilient they really are.
For some women this was a planned challenge, perhaps with sponsorship for a charity, and for others it was more spontaneous. One woman told me about just deciding one day on holiday to climb a particular mountain, something she had always wanted to do, and how she kept saying to herself, ‘Just one step at a time,’ to push herself to the top and the immense feeling of satisfaction and pride at having achieved her goal.
7) It might feel there’s not enough support for cancer survivors.... getting involved in research can help you and it can help others in the future
Hearing the stories of women who’ve had an emotionally difficult time after cancer has been moving. Sadly, some women said that they found it hard to find the right sort of help for them at the time that they really needed it.
This seemed to be one of the main reasons why people wanted to take part in our research and tell us about their experiences of cancer. Most women said they found it rewarding to know that they were contributing to research that could develop new treatments and help others.
We have developed, with the invaluable help of the women we spoke to, the first version of our intervention to build resilience in women who have been treated for breast cancer.
Until April 2021, we're recruiting women who are experiencing low mood or worry following treatment for breast cancer in the last three years to help us find out if our support works. If you, or someone you know would like to know more or are interested in taking part please have a look at our website www.frameproject.co.uk or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re reading this at a later point in time, charities often post research adverts on their forum and in their newsletter.
*Just a note to say, breast cancer affects men too. There are some similarities in the way breast cancer affects men and women, but there are also differences. Our research, at this time, is focusing specifically on the experience of women who have been treated for breast cancer, but we hope to expand in the future to develop interventions for men and for other cancers too.
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