Spirituality, Inner Strength: The ‘Positive Changes’ Breast Cancer Survivors Experience

It is not the disease which kills, it's the mind. If you can't get rid of the stigma attached to it, then the treatment is a waste.

Kolkata: Lump or abnormal skin on and around the breast is not something that a woman can boast of. These signs of breast cancer may instill fear on discovery and recurrence fright in most women, one may think. A new study has, however, shown how this can instead spur positivity in some survivors.

Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) underwent a study to understand the impact of cancer on the survivor’s perspective to life, self, spirituality and relationships.

“The number of survivors is expected to increase worldwide due to improvements in methods of early screening and treatment,” Mahendra P Sharma, Professor of Clinical Psychology at NIMHANS told IANS.

Mr Sharma added that post the treatment, the challenge is to adapt to the changes in body image, relationships and dealing with fears of recurrence.

He said that some survivors, who overcome the battle with cancer, can experience positive changes, commonly known as post-traumatic growth (PTG).

“The most common theme among survivors is the increased appreciation for life and to live it to the fullest, to look after one’s needs and make oneself a priority. Another recurring theme revealed that the survivors felt stronger mentally and were confident that if one could survive cancer, one could survive anything in life,” he said.

Mr Sharma and colleagues focused on 15 Indian women from urban communities of India. All of them were married and had undergone mastectomy/lumpectomy and were undergoing hormonal therapy.

Marriage is fraught with concerns for women who survive breast cancer, the analysis showed.

“Those who have had surgeries are particularly anxious about spousal acceptance issues. They are insecure as to whether their relationship will be the same, also whether their sex life will be impacted. But we also saw enhanced ability to empathise, to be generous and seeing others (including spouse) for their positives,” Mr Sharma said.

The breast cancer survivorship trajectory also threw up interesting results in terms of spirituality, which helped a section of survivors find strength while they wrestled with questions of life and death.

In India, within the last five years, as of 2012, the estimated incidence rate was 145,000, morbidity rate was 70,000 and the prevalence rate was 397,000.

“Surviving cancer led them to contemplate what their life is meant for. Many felt drawn to a higher power while others believed in the thought ‘what is going to happen will happen’,” said Mr Sharma.

The outcomes of the psycho-oncological study stress on the need to actively identify coping process through the early parts of treatment and the survivor’s attitude towards the illness, Mr Sharma pointed out.

“These processes can contribute to identifying and setting in process PTG as an attempt to rebuild the survivor’s shattered assumptions about the world,” notes the study co-authored by MS Barthakur, SK Chaturvedi and SK Manjunath.

Surgical oncologist and breast and endocrine surgeon Diptendra Kumar Sarkar said discussions around psycho-oncology are extremely appropriate and important.

“Try to understand the situation of a 40-year-old woman who has undergone breast removal. She has lost her hair due to chemotherapy. The challenge is not to make them disease-free… the challenge lies in making them free of the stigma,” Mr Sarkar, chief of the breast services and research unit, Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research (IPGMER), Kolkata, told IANS.

“It is not the disease which kills, it’s the mind. So the mental part and psycho-oncology are much more important than the treatment itself. If you can’t get rid of the stigma, then the treatment is a waste,” Mr Sarkar said.

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