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Why is cancer complex to recover from?

Cancer is a complex disease and this complexity is replicated in recovery. The impact of cancer often lasts many years after the initial diagnosis with patients often not knowing how or where to begin recovery.

Cancer develops when the normal and orderly process of cell division breaks down. Cancer can affect any one at any time in their life and can start in any part of the body. There are around 365,000 annual cancer diagnoses in the UK and 14,000,000 globally. Cancer is not just one disease but the name for a collection of related diseases. There are over 200 different types of cancer with 12 different types of breast cancer, 7 prostate and 3 bladder. Not smoking or drinking alcohol, limiting exposure to the sun, being active and eating a healthy diet reduces the risk of cancer while age and some genes increase it.

The symptoms of cancer can vary widely from nothing to an itch, cough, lump or pain and can be detected through a symptom or screening programme. The diagnosis will be made in a different way for each cancer and could be through a scan, biopsy or blood test.

Once cancer has been diagnosed it will be further categorised to see if it requires certain hormones or proteins to grow. The cancer will also be graded to see how quickly it is growing as well as staged to see how far it has spread. This will give a personalised diagnosis from which a personalised treatment plan will be created by a team of doctors based on previous research and medical trials.

Treatment varies widely depending on the type and stage of cancer and could range from amputation to a stem cell transplant with chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy being the more common treatments. Some people will have a single treatment and some will receive treatment for the rest of their lives. There are side effects and body changes for each treatment. Cancer is an unpredictable illness and no one can fully predict a treatment outcome, cancer can return many years later or it may never return at all.

Cancer is also complex because although it is diagnosed and treated medically cancer doesn’t just impact us physically it impacts us emotionally and psychologically too. Cancer also impacts all areas of our lives which further adds to the complexity. Cancer impacts our relationships and meaning to our life. The people we love and share our lives with will also be impacted. How cancer is talked about in the media and society also adds to the complexity of cancer because it’s not really understood and the gaps are filled with rumour and myth.

The impact of cancer isn’t just limited to while we are having treatment, cancer can impact us for the rest of our lives physically, emotionally and psychologically. To add to the complexity of cancer recovery we may need different support at different times. What we need at diagnosis will be different from what we need at a check-up three years down the line.

Just as the cancer diagnosis is as unique as the person being diagnosed the recovery is unique too. No two cancer diagnoses, treatments, impacts or recoveries will be the same even though they have been diagnosed with the same disease. This adds to the complexity of cancer because there cannot be a single way to recover, we each need to find our own way.

Recovery should encompass all the areas cancer impacted and be viewed as a lengthy process and not just for the duration of treatment. Start with identifying the areas of your life impacted by cancer. These could be:

  • Family

  • Friends

  • Work

  • Hobbies/interests

  • Self confidence

  • Faith

  • Social life

  • Media

  • Culture

Then look at how the areas of your life were impacted:

  • Emotionally

  • Psychologically

  • Physically

Regularly check the impact of cancer over time through:

  • Diagnosis

  • Treatment

  • Recovery

  • Anniversaries

  • Check ups

  • Tests

By recognising how, where and when cancer impacts our lives we can begin to build up a picture of the impact cancer has on us over time. We can then identify what will help our recovery. For example when I felt ill with treatment I couldn’t see my friends and this created emotions of loneliness and isolation. I set up a social media page to keep in touch and felt better because I was connected to that part of my life once more. I have horrendous anxiety around tests and check ups and now tell my family so they can support me.

What did you find complex about having cancer? How did you begin your recovery from cancer? Has how cancer impacted you changed over time?

This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.


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