Breast cancer is not a death sentence

Posted on October 29, 2014

In South Africa, one in 29 women is diagnosed with breast cancer each year. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many do not take the necessary steps to detect the disease in its early stages and to encourage others to do the same. Most of us dread ever hearing the words, “You have cancer”, because this disease is sure to have a significant impact on all areas of a person’s life. Ms Jonita van Wyk, who graduated earlier this year with a master’s degree in Social Work (Health Care) in the Department of Social Work and Criminology at the University of Pretoria (UP), conducted research on the social functioning of women with breast cancer, under the supervision of Dr Charlene Carbonatto.

For her research, Ms Van Wyk used a case-study design, selecting eight women who were at different stages of their struggle with breast cancer, and conducted semi-structured interviews with each of them, hoping to gain a better understanding of how their diagnoses had impacted on their lives.

As confirmed in research previously done on the subject, Ms Van Wyk found that the initial shock of having been diagnosed with cancer is usually accompanied by emotions such as disbelief, anger, denial, fear and depression. The treatment that inevitably follows the diagnosis can be the most anxiety-provoking stage for both the patients and their families, as this normally commences before they have had time to come to terms with the diagnosis. The treatment itself also has additional adverse effects on the patient’s life, as it normally includes surgical interventions like biopsy, lumpectomy and mastectomy; chemotherapy; radiation therapy; and hormone therapy, which in turn can have a negative effect on psychological aspects of the patient’s life. As women normally fulfil multiple roles in their families, such as mother, wife, friend, daughter and caregiver, their social functioning is naturally impacted by the effects of this disease.

According to the information gleaned from the interviews conducted by Ms Van Wyk, the participants all experienced changes in their personalities, spiritual aspects of their lives, physical abilities and also their ability to meet the demands of their different roles. Overall, most of the women interviewed did not see their cancer as a death sentence, but rather saw it as a manageable illness and chose to take positive things from their experience with the disease. That being said, their positive approach does not mean that that they did not experience intense negative emotions linked with their cancer. 

For most of the participants, the side effects associated with cancer treatment had the most negative and disruptive impact on their lives, and it seemed that these had a bigger impact on them than the cancer itself. All eight women indicated that the cancer diagnosis had had an effect on their personality: some felt they had become more emotional, and others that it had made them focus more on the important things in life like family. Seven of the eight participants also indicated that they had experienced a deepening of their spiritual lives after learning that they had cancer. Although most participants did not indicate that they had felt a change in their self-concept as far as their femininity was concerned, some did experience a lowered self-image due to the effects of the cancer treatment or the surgery they had undergone.

One of the most encouraging findings of Ms Van Wyk’s research was that the social functioning of most of the women in the context of both their families and their communities was ultimately positive as a result of all the support they received from their significant others, their families and their communities. Most of the women indicated that their personal relationships had actually deepened and become closer as a result of the cancer process. Although the women were at times unable to fulfil the physical demands of work and household chores, they felt they were still able to fulfil their roles, for example as wife, mother or caregiver, through the support of the people in their environment.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), breast cancer is one of the most prominent cancers among women in both developing and developed countries, and accounts for 16% of all female cancers. It is also one of the five leading causes of deaths due to cancer worldwide. It is clear from the experiences of the women who took part in this study that cancer does not have to be viewed as a death sentence – it is a manageable illness that can be beaten with the love and support from those around you.

Remember to wear your pink ribbon this October to show your support for those battling with breast cancer.


To read Ms Van Wyk’s full mini-dissertation, please visit: 

- Author Ansa Heyl

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