With new findings revealing over 8 in ten (84 per cent) women with breast cancer in England are not told about the possibility of developing long-term anxiety and depression by healthcare professionals, Breast Cancer Care and Mind have partnered to make mental health after breast cancer a priority.
Both charities are calling for everyone with breast cancer to be told about the potential long-term emotional impact, and offered mental health support for when they need it.
A landmark survey of nearly 3,000 women with breast cancer in England, carried out on behalf of Breast Cancer Care, reveals that one in three (33 per cent) experience anxiety for the first time in their lives after their diagnosis and treatment. Shockingly, almost half (45 per cent) experience continuous fear that the cancer may return, which can severely impact day-to-day life.
The survey also found 8 per cent of women with breast cancer have a panic attack for the first time as a result of their breast cancer diagnosis or treatment.
The charities warn that as the routine of hospital appointments suddenly ends, women with breast cancer can often feel alone, without adequate support and unsure where to find help.
Lauren Faye, 28 from Bristol, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016 and had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy. She has since struggled with social isolation and anxiety. She says:
“My last hospital appointment felt like a huge anti-climax. I’d been so caught up in the whirlwind of treatment, I didn’t anticipate how hard moving forward would be. I felt isolated from my friends as I had no energy to go out with them, and I had to watch from the sidelines as they all got on with their careers, relationships and lives.
“But the biggest barrier to adapting to life after breast cancer was my anxiety. I completely stopped trusting my body and lived in fear of there being something wrong with me. To this day, there’s always a worry festering in the back of my mind about the cancer coming back.
“At the end of treatment, the impact of breast cancer on my mental health wasn’t even mentioned by my healthcare team, nor was I referred to support, let alone given any. It wasn’t until I called Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline that my emotions were finally acknowledged and I realised my feelings were normal.”
This survey also found a fifth (19 per cent) of women with breast cancer experience social isolation after their hospital treatment ends, with three quarters (75 per cent) more socially isolated than they were at diagnosis.
More than one in ten (13 per cent) of women with breast cancer leave the house less after finishing breast cancer hospital treatment due to emotional and physical long-term side effects. Of these, over one in three say it’s because they feel too anxious (35 per cent) or do not want to speak to other people (34 per cent), and over one in four (26 per cent) are too self-conscious about changes to their appearance.
Samia al Qadhi, Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Care, says:
“These upsetting figures highlight the stark reality of life after breast cancer and why we are taking a stand with Mind to make support for people’s mental health a priority. Damaged body image, anxieties about the cancer returning and debilitating long-term side effects can disrupt identities and shatter confidence, leaving people feeling incredibly lonely, and at odds with friends, family and the outside world.
“We know people expect to feel better when they finish treatment and can be utterly devastated and demoralised to find it the hardest part. And though the NHS is severely overstretched, it’s crucial people have a conversation about their mental health at the end of treatment so they can get the support they need, at the right time.”
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, says:
“Our physical and mental health are closely linked, yet too often, mental and physical health problems are treated separately. It’s really important that anyone receiving treatment for a physical health problem has attention paid to their mental health and overall wellbeing.
“It’s understandable that being diagnosed with or treated for something as serious as breast cancer will impact someone’s mental wellbeing, even if they have never experienced a mental health problem before.
“Health professionals should treat each person as a whole and, if treating someone for their physical health, also offer ongoing support for their mental health. If nothing else, starting the conversation means that the person is more likely to recognise the impact their condition may have on their wellbeing and feel able to seek support if they need it. We need to see longer term support for those who are either receiving or coming to the end of their cancer treatment.”
Breast Cancer Care and Mind are calling for everyone with breast cancer to be told about the potential long-term emotional impact, and offered mental health support for when they need it.
Breast Cancer Care survey by Quality Health - fieldwork was undertaken between 5 March and 18 June 2018. Total sample 2,862 women in England with primary breast cancer, with no additional diagnoses who have finished hospital treatment. All percentages calculated by Quality Health, rounded to the nearest whole number and figures were calculated to exclude responses where the question was not applicable to the respondent’s circumstances, i.e. ‘missing’, ‘n/a’ or ‘don’t know’. Total sample size for individual questions may vary due to people answering specific questions according to their personal experience.