I’M so sorry” is just about one of the worst things you can say to a breast cancer patient. Especially if it’s accompanied by a sorrowful look and a few awkward pats on the arm.
However, breast cancer survivor Margaret Gooi cannot find it in her heart to blame people who react this way.
“These people won’t know how to react, whether if they say the wrong thing, the other person will burst out crying,” says Gooi, who is now actively involved in the Breast Cancer Welfare Association (BCWA).
Yes, having breast cancer is a traumatic experience for any woman. But it can be equally distressing for her family members, friends and colleagues, who cannot understand what it is like, but desperately want to show that they care.
Gooi, who has plenty of experience working with breast cancer patients, suggests that understanding what a patient is going through can help others deal with her. Here, she lists out the most common fears faced by breast cancer patients.
Will I still be desirable?
Not all women diagnosed with breast cancer necessarily have to lose their breast, especially if they are diagnosed early. But in spite of this, the one thing women fear most is “losing their femininity,” says Gooi.
As femininity is linked to sexuality, many of these women feel that losing a breast, or part of it, makes them less desirable or less of a woman.
Married women will wonder if their husbands will still love them, while single women will ask if they can get married.
“They will ask ‘What are my chances of getting married? How do I tell the man? Will he accept me?’” Gooi adds.
Will my husband still love me?
According to Gooi, there are different categories of husbands. “Some husbands can’t cope with the wife, who’s feeling lousy from the chemotherapy treatment, cranky and always crying.
“Some husbands become overprotective ? cannot eat this, cannot do that. They won’t even let their wives mix with other breast cancer survivors,” explains Gooi.
There is another type of husband, who is willing to pay for the medical treatment, but demands that things go on as normal. “He still demands to be served, and he still wants sex as normal, even though the wife may not be well enough,” she says.
Finally, there’s the jewel of all husbands, the one who is very supportive, becomes more caring, finds out as much as he can about breast cancer and journeys all the way with his wife.
Gooi implores husbands to remember that their wives have to cope with a lot, including the loss of their breast, the ordeal of chemotherapy and radiation, the constant feeling of sickness and lethargy and the frustration of not being able to do a lot of things.
“All she wants is some reassurance ? and a hug,” notes Gooi.
How will people treat me?
Acceptance by society is a stumbling block for many women with breast cancer, who fear that even their own friends and colleagues may ostracise them.
It explains why “many women are still very secretive about their breast cancer. Nobody outside their family knows. They say that people will give them a funny look,” says Gooi.
She can understand the fear, having had the same experience when she was diagnosed more than 20 years ago. Feeling the need to share the news with her friend, she mentioned that the doctor had removed her breast.
“I could see (her) eyes immediately shoot to my chest, trying to decide, ‘Which side?’” Gooi laughs.
During this period, a woman with breast cancer will become very sensitive to other people’s body language and reactions. She may perceive other people as looking down on her, even though it is not their intention to do so.
Gooi explains that this may stem from the fear of having people feel sorry for them. “It makes us feel bad when people feel sorry for us! We don’t want sympathy, we want empathy.”
What can I eat?
One of the first questions a breast cancer patient will ask is, “What are the foods I cannot eat?”
Without a doubt, she has either been told or read that she can only eat organic foods or drink oxygenated water. Most of this advice will come from well-meaning friends and relatives who, according to Gooi, “suddenly become experts on cancer”.
All these do’s and don’ts will only heighten the patient’s anxiety and fuel her confusion.
Following a strict diet regime is bound to alienate you from friends, who find it difficult to accommodate your needs for organic vegetarian food. You will also feel guilty for imposing obligations upon them, and eventually stop going out with them.
Survivors at BCWA advise other patients to just eat normally. “You have to eat well, so that you can cope with your treatment. Why give yourself extra stress? I would rather enjoy than restrict myself and be miserable!” exclaims Gooi.
What about my livelihood?
“Will I lose my job?” is another fear breast cancer patients have to deal with. Many do not reveal their illness to their employer or colleagues.
Women who have uncompassionate employers may not even dare to take leave for their chemotherapy treatment. As a result, they go straight from the hospital to the office, too tired to do any work, and get scolded by their employer for “slacking off”.
“If you don’t want to take leave, why not arrange for your chemotherapy on a Friday, so that you can rest over the weekend?” suggests Gooi.
Furthermore, at a point when finances are all spent on medical fees, breast cancer patients may have insurance problems because insurance companies do not cover “critical illnesses”.
Despite all the challenges and uncertainties that may arise after diagnosis and throughout treatment, Gooi strongly believes that things can only change for the better.
“Now you should learn to appreciate the things in life, little gestures from your family and friends. Our lives should be better now.”
Some people think of breast cancer as a tragedy, Gooi prefers to see it as a second chance.
The month of October is Estee Lauder Companies Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Join the Estee Lauder Inc Pink Ribbon Roadshows on October 1-3 (Sogo Departmental Store, Cosmetics Department, Ground Floor); Oct 8-10 (Women’s Health & Lifestyle Workshop, PWTC); Oct 11-13 (Suria KLCC Concourse); Oct 15-17 (1 Utama Shopping Centre, 1st Floor); Oct 20-24 (Mid-Valley Megamall).