Breast cancer survival is on the rise, but becoming cancer-free brings its own set of challenges
Breast cancer survival rates are on the rise. But life after a diagnosis is still tough, and not just on your body—your relationships, mental health and body image can suffer, too. Here’s how two women are rebuilding their lives.
WHEN JOANNA, WHO ASKED US
not to use her last name, thinks back on her 20s, they’re divided into two distinct eras: Before and After. Before, she was living in a Vancouver apartment with her boyfriend, preparing to take the exam that would earn her a certified human resources professional designation and getting ready to launch her career. Then, she found a lump in her breast, and she was irrevocably pushed into After.
“I truthfully don’t remember what I was doing when I felt it,” says Joanna. “I didn’t even suspect it might be cancer; I was 26 and I had no family history, so I didn’t have the impression that there was concern for my health. I just wanted to understand why there was a lump and how I could have it removed.”
When she went to the doctor, there was nothing to indicate she was wrong. Pointing to Joanna’s age, her doctor said the lump was almost certainly a cyst. (According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, 82 percent of new breast cancer diagnoses happen in women 50 or older.) While initially relieved, Joanna wanted to be absolutely sure, so she asked for a mammogram. Doctors believe the possible risks of the procedure (such as radiation exposure or unnecessary biopsies) usually outweigh the possible benefits, so they don’t tend to OK mammograms for women under 40 who don’t have any risk factors. But, after convincing, her doctor eventually relented, and Joanna had a mammogram on Christmas Eve. When the results came back negative, a weight was lifted. “I thought it was just a cyst, but I wanted someone to operate on it, to get it out,” she says.
Her doctor didn’t think surgery was necessary, but Joanna kept pushing for one. Finally, after four months of back-and-forth, Joanna persuaded him to refer her to a breast cancer specialist, who was worried enough to expedite a biopsy. That’s when Joanna found out it wasn’t a cyst, after all. She had Her2-positive invasive ductal carcinoma.
The most recent stats say 25,000 Canadian women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, but millions of dollars in research funding, improved screening methods and awareness campaigns have led to a steady rise in survival rates since the 1980s. Though breast cancer remains one of the most common cancers among Canadian women, it’s also one of the most survivable: Today, the five-year survival rate is 88 percent.
Now 33, Joanna finished treatment—a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation—five years ago. After her last radiation appointment, she and her boyfriend travelled to Iceland to celebrate and, when he proposed, shifted their focus to the future. “The trip signified a fresh chapter, one where I wouldn’t be defined by being a cancer patient,” says Joanna. But returning to normal wasn’t easy. “I felt relieved to be finished with chemo, radiation and surgery, but I also suffered from anxiety and depression,” she says. In fact, family and friends might not realize just how difficult life as a breast cancer survivor can be; for many women, emotional upheaval, body image issues and uncertainty about the future linger well after treatment is over.