Is it right to feel your breasts? Removing emotional and mental barriers
By: Nana Ama Bruce-Amanquah: Knowledge Management Intern, AWDF
I’m no stranger to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I think for a lot of us, seeing people wear shades of pink in October, getting news about free breast screenings, and hearing about the importance of early detection is quite, well, normal. So when I started looking for interesting research articles that would be relevant to Pink October to put on AfriREP, our online knowledge platform, I didn’t really expect to read anything that would stop me in my tracks.
That is, until I read this: “I don’t think it’s right to feel your breast.”
I had decided to focus on ideally qualitative breast cancer studies that connected to the theme of mental health and when I read this unexpected quote in one of the articles I found, I actually paused for a full moment because (1) I thought it was so relatable and (2) I found its relatability weird, considering I understood the importance of self-examinations. After all, wasn’t it common knowledge? And yet, when I stopped and thought about it, really thought about it, I realized that I did find checking my breasts to be weird, even with all my general exposure to information about breast cancer. I certainly had never gone out of my way to conduct a breast self-examination. And I’d never actually given it a serious thought or talked to anyone about it before. As I continued reading this particular study, I found more surprisingly relatable statements. Like one woman who watched educational adverts about breast cancer without paying much attention to them and another who had read pamphlets about breast cancer symptoms but hadn’t actually understood them. Had these women been speaking right in front of me, I would have been nodding and thinking “yeah, same!”
As I read more about actual women’s experiences with breast cancer, I realized something even more distressing. The discomfort and confusion around breast cancer had potentially devastating effects, not just for the women in question, but also for the people around them. Some recently diagnosed women had originally been so unaware or scared of their symptoms that they delayed going to the doctor until the lumps were painful. One woman had a loved one pass away from breast cancer, and yet did not get checked. Others feared the stigma of being so-called “incomplete women” without both breasts. There were women who self-isolated, avoiding confiding in anyone out of fear of becoming emotional burdens. At the end of the day, despite all the breast cancer awareness and all the Pink October campaigns, too many women still found themselves unable and unwilling to take action when something was actually wrong.
What did result in some of these women eventually getting tested, however, was their loved ones — daughters, friends, brothers, husbands, and others — who encouraged, if not personally taking them to the hospital, and providing emotional support for an unimaginably difficult situation. Having someone to talk to about such an uncomfortable topic made all the difference.
I’ve also had close loved ones get diagnosed with, survive, and even die from various types of cancer. Even so, worrying about symptoms or getting tested is a topic I’ve often ignored because honestly…it’s just easier. For such a difficult diagnosis, sometimes you’d rather not know, especially when everything seems okay enough. It can feel more comfortable to be silent about anything, breast cancer included, unless someone has died. But that silence can be dangerous. Without actively fostering an emotionally and mentally safe environment that encourages self-checking and reaching out when something is wrong, we create more issues down the line that become harder to resolve.
With this in mind, I had some of my first casual and candid conversations about breast cancer this month, like with my cousin, my sister, and my mum all while working on this blog. I learned about their concerns (or lack thereof) around the disease, what it feels like to get regular mammograms (apparently, they hurt?!), and how having free breast screenings doesn’t eliminate the mental and emotional barriers to getting tested. I also did my first breast self-examination. Was all of this weird? Yes indeed, in several ways. But I’m glad I did these things, because it opens up space in my circles to have comfortable conversations even in uncomfortable circumstances. If nothing else, I hope this blog post encourages you to pause and consider how important it is to foster an encouraging and comforting environment for the sake of your health as well.