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Breast Cancer in women

How breast cancer affects you

Being diagnosed with a serious illness can be overwhelming, and reactions are different from person to person. Here women discuss the impact of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Most women felt shocked and upset when they were told they had breast cancer. Some described how they switched off and dissociated themselves from the news. One woman described her sense of disbelief and denial as she already had other illnesses to cope with. Another recalled the feelings and questions she had at the time.

 

Describes switching off from the news of her diagnosis.

Describes switching off from the news of her diagnosis.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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It was a very strange experience.

I felt as though I was sitting in the corner by the window, it was rather like an out of body experience, and when I came back, you know, I came back to reality, I kept trying to put myself back in the seat I was in but I kept going back to the window again.

I think everybody thought I was taking it very well, I was very controlled. And fortunately I had a friend with me again because at that point I switched off completely.

I heard, I've always heard that people seeing a doctor can switch off from bad news, I actually didn't realise I'd done it but I'd had one sentence came out of him and I completely blanked.
 
 

Describes her disbelief on hearing that she had cancer.

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Describes her disbelief on hearing that she had cancer.

Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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When they said to me that I have cancer, in fact I wept like a child.

But I thought' "Why it's me, why me, why, why, what person? "I'm having arthritis, this blood pressure and this too, why?" So I wept.

And the doctor said' "Don't weep, I'll save your life." It was Dr [name], that was my consultant you know. He said' "I'll save your life." He said' "I'll cut the whole breast." I said' "What!?"

So in fact that day I wept.

So they gave me, they said, I told them I'm doubting. I don't think what they are saying is true so they should do, continue doing, so they said they would do another examination. So it was three, three days, I had the injection, then second one and third one.

And then they said' "[Name] you have to accept that it's cancer." So what else can I do? There's nothing I can do. And so I accepted it.
 
 

Describes her thoughts and feelings when diagnosed with cancer.

Describes her thoughts and feelings when diagnosed with cancer.

Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 18
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The fact is I was so shocked because I wasn't expecting it whatsoever that I didn't do anything.

I just sat deadly still and I didn't know what to do. It was awful because no one was there and then they went out the room and they went into the office and they left me on my own in that little room and that's when I burst into tears.

That's when, that's when the reality hit me.

And you get all these things going through your mind you know. How long have I got? That was the first question you know. Is it terminal? Am I going to die, you know? What are my chances? You get all these thoughts.

I think everybody must, you know, it's just, and you just, it was so much of a shock to me and I'm so young, I'd been so fit for so long you know. And I'm not the one in the family that's the smoker.

I do drink at the weekend but I don't drink excessively you know. I eat fairly healthily, I keep fit. So why me, what have I done, you know?

So I thought' "Well I must've been a bit of a bad 'un in my past life. "I must you know, I must've done something wrong." And I just, I wanted someone to blame really. And it's, you can't find anybody because no one's given you it, you know.
 

Some women described feeling angry at the diagnosis and timing of it. One of these women, who was interviewed two weeks after being diagnosed, recalled feeling anger as well as a sense of bereavement. Other women felt alone, isolated or lonely. Some said they did not want to talk to other people at this time.

 

Describes her disbelief, her sense of loss and her gradual acceptance of her diagnosis.

Describes her disbelief, her sense of loss and her gradual acceptance of her diagnosis.

Age at interview: 73
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 73
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Well here I am at nearly 74. Much wiser after the event as usual.

If you'd have asked me a fortnight ago to try and explain just how I felt I wouldn't have been able to do it. I'm very angry at myself because I feel I should have known better.

I think if I reflect now back on that fortnight it's, I suppose, a similar thing to a bereavement, where you're going through all the normal things and yet you, as if you're a whole differently.

I have been really cross at myself and then I think I got from that stage to disbelief where I felt if I'd just kept on pushing myself, just do the ordinary every day things, it would probably go away anyway.

I was even stupid enough to put my hand and think maybe it's gone. Well you know very well it hasn't, but you do it.

I'm relieved now that I've got to the stage where I know exactly what is happening. I know that this is only the first stage. I'm quite confident in my mind that although there are so many people with it, you're not on your own.

But I'm quite confident that everything that can be done will be done for me, and that is really reassuring.
 

One woman, who was diagnosed at the age of thirty, described bottling up her feelings and anxieties about her young children. Concern for children was mentioned by several women, as well as concern for other family members.

 

Describes bottling up her feelings and fears about not living to see her children grow up.

Describes bottling up her feelings and fears about not living to see her children grow up.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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I was just in a daze the whole time.

I was quite bottled up at the time. I didn't talk to people about my feelings. I coped. And everybody thought I was coping fine, which I was on the surface but underneath I was in agony.

And I was lying awake in the nights thinking I would not see my children grow up, because the daughter who'd I'd just been weaning was, she'd been born in 1981 so she was just over one year old when I found the lump. And my son was two-and-a-half coming up to three when I was having the treatment.

And when I say I bottled everything up, I bottled up my feelings. I didn't ask for help. I didn't talk to people about how upset I was. I didn't even tell my husband much, that I was lying awake in the night.

I was frightened that my children would lose their mother at an age when they wouldn't remember me. And having been on the receiving end of losing a parent I didn't want that for them.
 

Two women described coping very much alone and one of them said she told very few people. Another found her family's reaction difficult to cope with (see ‘How it affects families’).

 

Explains that she did not tell many people about her diagnosis.

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Explains that she did not tell many people about her diagnosis.

Age at interview: 75
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 68
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And I was really quite matter of fact with it I think, it hadn't sort of, I think it hadn't sort of hit me at that stage. I didn't cry or anything, you know, when he said it was malignant and needed to be done.

Because then I had to go home and it was beginning to sink in at that stage, what worries could be, you know. And I had to tell my husband. But I obviously didn't tell him very well because about, long after the operation, he asked me whether I had got cancer.

So I obviously hadn't, I think I was trying not to worry him. My way of sort of doing it was not to tell very many people you know and people were surprised that I'd had breast cancer and so on.

And I've always been like that. I never like people to know I was ill or anything, you know. And then so everybody is different. The cost of not telling people is that you don't get the sort of sensitiveness and so on, kindness and so on. But I would like somebody to say' "Oh I'm so glad you're well," not "oh you poor thing, you've got breast cancer," you know.
 

Some women discussed dealing with the reactions of others, including pity, distance and unease. A few said they felt left behind while other people were progressing with their lives.

 

Describes how some people avoided her because they didn't know how to talk about her illness with...

Describes how some people avoided her because they didn't know how to talk about her illness with...

Age at interview: 42
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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And people's reactions to it were, cancer sort of' "Ughhh!", you know.

They don't like, I mean a lot of people just don't like mentioning the word.

Oh, I say, the oncologist didn't. And, sometimes I felt some people avoided me because they didn't know what to say. So that was, that was hard to bear really I think.

I mean some people were great but some people, and I mean it wasn't that people didn't want to help, they just didn't know what to say. And so they just avoided it. And avoided me, which was difficult.

So I think it is more difficult when you're younger, probably. And certainly people's reactions to it are probably more marked.
 

Fear was another common feeling. Other women said they’d felt depressed. One woman described feeling empty, and another recalled switching off from her feelings completely and relying on her faith.

 

Describes feelings of isolation and fear about what the future held.

Describes feelings of isolation and fear about what the future held.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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I think the trouble is it is a very isolating thing having cancer. You, at the end of the day, have to go through it on your own.

But it does, I think also, it really makes you face up to the idea that we will eventually die one day. And you imagine you're going to die sooner rather than later when you're first told this.

I was quite surprised in a way that I dealt with it myself as well as I did. I think it's very much easier if you think you're going to get better. The fear is the overriding problem. I mean, the fear of the unknown, the fear of what you've got to have done, the fear of how much is it going to hurt or make you feel ill.

If you could just take all that away it would be pretty easy to deal with at the level at which I've had to deal with it.
 
 

Describes becoming depressed as she realised she could never get back to how she was before her...

Describes becoming depressed as she realised she could never get back to how she was before her...

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 43
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I was fine I think at the beginning. I was very, I was really kind of being positive for everybody else because everybody else thought I was dying, you know.

And the cancer, [my husband] lost his mother with liver cancer and so I was saying, you know, "I'm really lucky" and "I'm fine" and, "that we found it so early" and all the rest of it. And it was only then, probably a couple of months ago, that I realised I wasn't fine.

I was, well I mean I'm taking anti-depressants now. I was really, I got really depressed. I was just really flat and irritable and not sleeping.

Then I stopped talking to [my husband] about, everything was just too much effort really.

Whereas I was always somebody who would shrug off any illness, you know. I was never sick, never ever sick. And just being confronted with your own mortality I think is a scary business.

And it does change how you feel about life really. Because you can't forget about it. And every morning I have to take this pill and you can't, I just want it all to go away and pretend it's never happened, but it has.

So I have to deal with it as best I can really.
 
 

Comments that she switched off from her feelings and relied on her faith.

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Comments that she switched off from her feelings and relied on her faith.

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 60
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I didn't feel at all. I didn't feel at all.

I left everything in the hands of God. That's all. He's the only one who gives out suffering and he's the only one who takes it away. That's all.

And even now I continue with life in this way. It's my philosophy, whatever the situation, that what's written in destiny can't be erased, whatever God's written for you.

There's no use in worrying. Just have faith in God. That's enough.

Several women did not feel shock at the news of their diagnosis. One explained how she wanted to talk about her illness with all her friends, and commented that she did not feel the shock that she had been led to expect at the news of her diagnosis. Some women said that they expected the news of their diagnosis and treated their illness as a 'hiccup'.

 

Explains that she did not feel shock when diagnosed but wanted to talk to people she knew.

Explains that she did not feel shock when diagnosed but wanted to talk to people she knew.

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 43
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I came home and just phoned everybody. I just wanted, I just wanted to tell everybody.

I don't know why, there was no sort of' "Oh dear poor me," or, there was nothing like that. I just wanted everybody to know. And that's when I had to deal with everybody else's emotions. And I think it was probably, I thought once everybody knows I can actually be myself, I can actually then start coping with it myself. If I've got to cope with everybody else for the next six weeks, it will be much more difficult.

Talking of books they've produced a book at the Breast Cancer Unit of women's experiences of breast cancer.

And somebody loaned me a copy and I started reading it and I couldn't relate to it at all because every single woman who had written in it their, it was all 'shock, horror' and, I just, in the end I thought am I abnormal?

Because I wasn't in that 'shock, horror', you know. Never once was I like on the floor, devastated or anything like that. But I realised that it was real but I just wasn't reacting in this 'shock, horror' way that most people anticipate.
 
 

Explains that she expected the news of her diagnosis and treated the illness as a minor...

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Explains that she expected the news of her diagnosis and treated the illness as a minor...

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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I wasn't surprised.

I did say to the surgeon' "That's exactly what I expected you to say. Now what are we going to do?" I don't think at the time I actually realised how severe cancer can be, not having had any close relatives suffer from cancer or you know anybody.

But as you go through the treatment so you learn more. But I mean I never cried, never cried about it or, I'm too matter of fact I think for that. I just sort of thought' "Well, you've got it girl. Let's just get on with it. "Let's get this sorted, get the next 12 months over with and then get back on with your life," really.

You just have to get on with it. You haven't got any option. It's happened but there's no point in asking why because nobody knows the answer to that. So you've got to just go through it and get on with it.
 

A few women continued 'on autopilot' while things happened quickly from diagnosis to treatment. Several described how it felt peculiar to know that they had cancer but not to feel unwell. Maintaining a positive attitude helped some cope, while others talked about fighting their illness without allowing it to control their lives. Some women also talked about the fears and myths associated with cancer. One woman described how she saw her illness as a minor interruption that, these days, is much easier to deal with than many other conditions.

 

Explains why, aged 70, she saw her cancer diagnosis more as a nuisance than a disaster.

Explains why, aged 70, she saw her cancer diagnosis more as a nuisance than a disaster.

Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 70
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So when he said' "Yes, I'm sorry I'm afraid it is a cancer," I thought' "Ugh." It is a slight you know.

Not because it was cancer.

I will not join in this great myth that it's the most terrible diagnosis in the world, it is not, believe me there are some nastier illnesses than cancer. I wouldn't like to have Parkinson's. I don't want to have a stroke. I don't want to have multiple sclerosis. Cancer at 70, I'm 70 is like you know not such a terrible thing. It's a slow growing thing, it's easier to treat.

At the moment of being told I had cancer I remember thinking frankly, I thought' "Oh bugger," because it was a nuisance, because it was tiresome.

But I wasn't, it wasn't, I wasn't overwhelmed.

I knew enough about the disease to know that I was not a candidate for immediate death and I don't think a diagnosis of cancer is a death sentence anyway. I think this is one of the great myths. I've known too many people have done very, very well and are doing very, well.
 

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Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated August 2018.

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