Easier to talk to health workers about cancer than family
Some breast cancer patients are more comfortable discussing their situation with health personnel than with family and friends.
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Breast cancer strikes one woman in ten. Once it’s suspected, many women have to wait for a diagnosis, treatment or an operation. This is usually a very rough period for the patients.
Support from health personnel is often more important to them than encouragement and social support from their loved ones.
“It can be easier for a breast cancer patient to discuss her anxieties, worries and hopes with someone who isn’t as emotionally touched by the situation or so closely involved,“ says Associate Professor Sigrunn Drageset at Bergen University College.
Avoiding doom and gloom
Drageset has recently completed a doctoral thesis dealing with strategies used by breast cancer patients to cope with their diagnosis.
“More time should be allocated for health personnel to talk with patients who have serious breast cancer diagnoses. But this necessitates reorganisation and sufficient resources. As is, health system staff are already squeezed for time,” she says.
“It’s really important and useful to have confidential conversation with partners who can provide realistic and pertinent information about the severity of the disease and help lift the women out of their gloom,” Drageset continues.
Women’s strategies for coping often vary widely.
The study involved a questionnaire completed by 117 women who were thought to have breast cancer and 21 in-depth interviews with breast cancer patients the day before a cancer operation.
The interviews revealed that some women prefer getting all the information they can straight off, but clearly most wanted to be informed more gradually about their disease, taking in a little at a time.
“Requisites of most women suspected of having or diagnosed with breast cancer are staying active, getting on with their normal lives while tending to their own needs and having a health worker with whom they could discuss openly and confidentially,” says Drageset.
A little distance helps
This and other studies show that accepting the diagnosis is essential for coping with it – but the women shouldn’t think incessantly about their cancer.
Drageset’s interviews show the main objective of women’s coping strategies involved an avoidance of being overwhelmed by emotional reactions.
“Women can gain by keeping a certain distance to it all. They managed that through activities such as physical exercise, gardening or cultivating hobbies.”
“For many, staying on their jobs was essential,” she says.
The results showed that conscious efforts in remaining optimistic about the outcome helped keep anxiety at bay.
Higher education helps
The cancer patients who tackled the situation best were the ones with more education and better access to emotional support.
“These women have superior gateways to information. A higher level of education is also linked to having employment and jobs usually provide a good social network,” says Drageset.
Women who aren’t in paid jobs, who had less education or were either single, separated/divorced or widows were more prone toward using cognitive defences.
“These entail a form of mind control or denial in which the woman avoids letting the situation really sink in.”
“This can be expedient for a little while, but as time passes it can lead to greater anxiety and problems,” explains Drageset.
The duality of social support
The social support breast cancer patients receive usually has a positive impact, but sometimes too much attention and understanding can defeat its purpose.
“Some women become more fear-struck and feel sicker if they experience a strong focus on their breast cancer. So social support is a two-way street,” asserts the researcher.
“In these cases where the emotional involvement of family and friends can be deemed obtrusive, health personnel can be experienced as superior dialogue partners,” Drageset says.
Drageset, Sigrunn (2012): Psychological distress, coping and social support in the diagnostic and preoperative phase of breast cancer. University of Bergen.
Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no
Translated by: Glenn Ostling