October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, where people from all over the world show their support for everyone affected by breast cancer, a condition that around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed with every year in the UK alone. There are, as you can imagine, a number of life-changing symptoms that accompany a diagnosis, and this can seriously impact the physical, mental wellbeing of an individual, as well as their cognitive health. So read on to find out all about the symptoms, how to check ourselves, and what we can do to protect our wellbeing alongside this.
According to Breast Cancer Now, the symptoms of breast cancer include:
A lump or swelling in the breast, upper chest or armpit
A change to the skin, such as puckering or dimpling
A change in the colour of the breast – the breast may look red or inflamed
A nipple change, for example it has become pulled in (inverted)
Rash or crusting around the nipple
Unusual liquid (discharge) from either nipple
Changes in size or shape of the breast
Breast cancer and physical wellbeing
Breast cancer and the treatments for it can have a lot of physical effects on a person’s body. They might experience fatigue, pain, lymphoedema, lowered bone density, changes in weight, changes in mood, hair loss or the side effects of early menopause.
Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) suggests trying the following to relieve physical symptoms:
Exercise has been shown to be very effective in managing many of the side effects of breast cancer treatment, improving both physical and emotional health and overall quality of life. There is also good evidence that exercise may reduce the risk of breast cancer coming back.
Try to get enough sleep - many women having treatment for breast cancer will experience sleeplessness at some stage. BCNA's Sleepless nights: breast cancer and sleep fact sheet may help.
Eat a balanced diet to provide your body with the nutrition it needs to heal and help you function better. Healthy eating can provide you with energy to tackle day-to-day activities, help you maintain a healthy body weight and manage stress. Long term healthy eating combined with regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
Ask your family and friends for help with daily tasks, such as housework and childcare, so you can have some time to look after yourself.
Complementary therapies such relaxation, meditation and yoga may help to soothe you and enhance your physical and emotional wellbeing.
Breast cancer and mental wellbeing
A breast cancer diagnosis can put a lot of strain on a person’s psychological well being, adding stress to relationships, working life, constant tiredness and worry about their symptoms and situation.
People who are diagnosed with breast cancer also are more likely to experience at least one or more of the following:
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
We know the importance of taking care of ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally and so on… but with such a huge added stressor to our lives, ensuring we’re prioritising our wellbeing is crucial.
Those who are struggling with their mental health after a breast cancer diagnosis might want to check out this Mental Health Toolbox on the Breast Cancer Now website.
Seeking psychological support can not only help those struggling cope better with the changes going on in their life, but it can have a positive impact on the body, too. For example, mindfulness practices like breathing exercises, meditation and self-hypnosis can help to relieve the physical symptoms that accompany chemotherapy.
Breast cancer and cognitive health
In collaboration with Antwerp University Hospital, our team at MyCognition, including Martina Ratto - Beingwell’s cognitive scientist - carried out research on the impact brain fog can have in women going through treatment for breast cancer and the possibility to improve their cognition.
75% of breast cancer patients reported experiencing brain fog, during or after treatment. This is when someone who is going through or has finished breast cancer treatment finds it difficult to concentrate or feels more forgetful, often referred to as ‘chemo brain’.
“Cognitive impairment can persist for many years after an individual’s breast cancer diagnosis. Our study revealed the significant impact that using the MyCognition app can have on improving cognitive health in women recovering from breast cancer.”
Dr Anne Bellens, gynaecologist at Antwerp University Hospital
There are a number of factors that can contribute to cancer patients getting brain fog other than the treatment: the shock and worry that a diagnosis can cause alone can be difficult to process and puts the brain under stress, preventing our ability to think clearly.
A group of 46 voluntary patients aged between 18 and 71, suffering from brain fog, used our training app AquaSnap at least three times a week for either three or six months.
“It is clear that playing the game ‘AquaSnap’ every day had a beneficial effect on the subjective cognitive functions – particularly on reaction time, visual memory recognition and accuracy”
Dr Anne Bellens, gynaecologist at Antwerp University Hospital
What we found
The study concluded that a beneficial effect of regularly using the MyCognition app in easing the experience of brain fog in the participants. This was measured by the cognitive failure questionnaire (CFQ), which is a measure of self-reported cognitive failure, including forgetfulness, distraction, lack of confidence, and indecisiveness in everyday life situations.
“It felt like the game reset or was able to 'clean up' my mind’’
Participant using the MyCognition app during recovering from breast cancer
As we may already know, identifying the symptoms of breast cancer as early as possible is important for prevention and early intervention. There are many videos and blogs available to help us to check our breasts properly and identify any problematic symptoms, but this graphic from Breast Cancer Now is particularly in depth and helpful to refer to.
Check yourself to protect yourself: Regularly checking your breasts can help identify cancer early, when it is easy to treat and before it can cause serious symptoms. Breast cancer does not only impact our physical health, but our mental, psychological and cognitive health too. Knowing how to look after ourselves can help us manage this condition better, or help the people who might be suffering with cancer in our lives, so we can offer a helping hand in an awfully stressful time.