Rebecca Minton, Cancer Nurse Specialist at Reframe, shares her thoughts on breast cancer and how it’s been impacted by COVID.
Having trained at the Royal Marsden, Bex (as we know her) brings 9 years experience in oncology. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. While it’s mainly diagnosed among women, it does occur in men and non-binary communities too – although it is rare. The good news is survival rates are considered generally high when diagnosed and treated early.
How has COVID affected those with breast cancer?
Unfortunately, cancer screening was paused throughout the pandemic, leaving thousands of people undiagnosed who would have been picked up through routine screening programmes. There has also been a significant drop in people seeing their GP; more so from the vulnerable groups of individuals who did not want to make a trip to the doctor’s surgery. They appeared to be more worried about COVID than getting a lump, bump or cancerous symptom checked – resulting in a cancer referral being missed.
Alongside delays in being diagnosed, the main impact on our clients here at Reframe has been the delay in starting cancer treatment. We have, and continue to spend, time talking to our clients on what to expect with treatment, how to prepare for surgery and all the other vital information that that is not being discussed due to shorter time with medical professionals and cancer nurse specialists.
My main concern is how delays in treatment will impact survival rates. Many clients will breach the wait times for surgery which will result in poorer outcomes. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see a sudden increase in clients going privately and having second opinions in hope of being seen and treated quicker.
Have you seen an increase in demand for cancer support during COVID?
Yes. Our clients are leaning on us more so than ever due to the impacted availability of their specialist nurse within the hospital. As a result, clients are not getting a response to their calls or emails, so are turning to services like ourselves to provide clarity and reassurance.
The mental toll of coming to terms with a diagnosis, coupled with uncertainty of when they will receive life-saving treatment is falling on people’s families and employers. There is always an element of emotional support that we give to our clients, but when you add a pandemic, fear of infection, uncertainty about the future, a stretched NHS and hospital delays into the mix, it’s no wonder people’s mental health and wellbeing have taken a rapid decline.
The lack of face-to-face support groups hasn’t helped either. This used to be a popular way for people to meet up with others who faced similar challenges and share their stories in a safe space. Individuals living with cancer have felt isolated and having support outside of their network at work and at home can really help. Having an arm around someone or holding their hand can’t happen virtually.
Waiting lists for mental health support is approximately 12-16 weeks for just an initial consultation. Our clients are seeking reassurance that someone is by their side and clarity on treatment options. It can become exhausting to explain their personal situation to different people and healthcare professionals.
How does menopause affect the risk of cancer?
This month I attended The Christie’s School of Oncology Breast Cancer Conference to stay up to date with the latest developments in diagnosis, research and treatment. Interestingly, menopause was a key theme discussed as there are trials underway to better support people with cancer going through menopause.
Women of menopausal age are more likely to get breast cancer. Menopause is a rising health concern among female employees. While it doesn’t cause cancer, it people’s chances of getting cancer increases with age. Living with breast cancer doesn’t stop the symptoms when going through the menopause. Woman may already be in the menopause, peri-menopausal or put into an early induced menopause due to the menopause induced medications. Common symptoms with menopause include:
- hot flushes
- night sweats
- vaginal dryness and low sex drive
- difficultly sleeping
- low mood or anxiety
- problems with memory and concentration
How often should you check your breasts and does it really make a difference?
We should check our breast, pecs, chest and collarbone on a monthly basis. The signs are the same for everyone. Mammograms are not routinely offered to men, as they are with women over 50, and are difficult to perform because there is less breast tissue. It is therefore very important for males to know what is “normal” for them so that they can detect any lumps or abnormalities for them. Be sure to check around the collarbone and under the armpits as that’s where the lymph nodes are located.
The best time for women to check is the week after their period has stopped because during menstruation the ducts get swollen due to changes in oestrogen and progesterone levels. For the first few months of checking, it is good to check at different times of the month, as breasts will change shape and consistency.
Nearly half of breast cancers are found by women who feel a lump, so getting into the routine of regularly checking is very important. It goes without saying, how leading a healthy lifestyle can play a crucial part in prevention breast cancer – perhaps as far as 30%.