Earlier this month, UBC CA gave you the low down on Breast Cancer and its history. But what is often lost in the mix is the individuality of each case of breast cancer and how personal it can get. This easily happens because the faceless statistics and massive numbers feel impersonal, unhuman. And so we forget to see how one’s life can be changed and what that truly means.
In the case of Laura Branson, proud single mother and survivor of ductal breast cancer (ductal carcinoma) it was no easy ride. Every case of breast cancer is in some way unique to the person, and Branson is no exception.
She was diagnosed one year on the same day of her father’s passing in December of 2018 and remembers the moment precisely. “My doctor […] was sweating ’cause he’s giving me this news and I said to him ‘I can see your mouth moving but I can’t hear anything.’ I literally checked out. I was totally freaking out.”
Branson, who was told she had stage three breast cancer, would have to undergo a mastectomy to her right breast, four months of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation. But the disease is much more than just physiological. It can change a person’s life, for better and for worse.
For one, a person can have a changed outlook on life, like becoming “incredibly grounded” and learning to not let the little things get to you, to just “fluff it off”. Unfortunately, though, cancer can also completely shake the ground beneath its victim’s feet. During her treatment, Branson’s then husband asked her for divorce midway through her toughest times. “I was just floored, like I was a mess.”
She explains that having to go through a divorce while being treated was barbaric, especially during chemotherapy. “Chemo itself is probably the worst out of all the three things. It is a serious trauma. And as you’re being pumped with chemicals, and you’re in this room of all the chemo chairs and you know, there’s just people everywhere. People are bald and some people will make it and others won’t. It’s pretty traumatic.”
But Branson tells of how community changes everything. From the support of her friends, family, the sisterhood of women who rallied around her and the support of the hospital’s staff, she was able to get through the toughest times and her divorce. And she discovered that she was not the only one. Apparently, her doctor had seen it a few times before, whereby a spouse leaves during or after treatment, they “just check out”.
And this pattern is not unheard of. In fact cancer is known to take a toll on the weak areas of relationship that could then result in divorce. And what is even more shocking that a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced soon after a diagnosis of cancer than if a man in the relationship is the patient.
But this isn’t a sob story. Regardless of the obstacles, Branson was able to buy a home, give her children a happy life and get back up. And through it all, she captured and shared her journey via social media.
Being open about the journey gives a platform for more women to be able speak out about the unspoken. And on a personal level, doing so was healing for Branson, just to be “open about it, [and] to talk about it”. Creating that conversation means being able to demystify breast cancer while also inspiring others. “Some days I feel like I learned so many life lessons from my journey and to not share them would be selfish.”
And breaking down those walls on breast cancer means also breaking down its misconceptions. A lot of women tend to believe that they aren’t at risk of breast cancer because it doesn’t run in their family, when in fact only 5-10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be an inherited genetic mutation. As a result, Branson believes that women need to start checking and get mammograms done earlier than age 50, especially as someone who was diagnosed at the age of 42.
But the most important piece of advice for a woman in this position is: “advocate for yourself. Research everything.” By understanding the disease and what your unique case is like, one is able to have a say in the process and know what’s out there. “You’re not just sitting idly and letting other people make a decision. The doctors are really, really busy. So the more you can do for yourself, the better.” And of course, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
So to the women out there struggling: take on the support around you, speak out, do your research, and know that “whatever the outcome is, you don’t have a choice, it’s there and you are stronger than you think you are and you can handle anything.”
But to those who aren’t battling cancer, the moral of the story is that YOU (yes you!) are a key part to that change in creating an environment that is inclusive, to break stigmas, and be able to be part of an empowered and supportive community.
So as this month comes to an end, UBC CA hopes that regardless of the time of year, you can remember to use your platform to better your community. Happy Breast Cancer Awareness Month!
1. American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer Risk and Prevention (1)
2. Science Daily (1)
3. Cancer Fighters Thrive: Cancer and Divorce (1)