Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Building Psychological Well-being

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Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 17th May 2017


Our discussion this week was linked to Mental Health Awareness Week ~ we asked: what are the things that have helped build our mental flexibility and psychological well-being post diagnosis, and how have they benefited us?

Seeking help to support our psychological well-being involved many pathways: from mindfulness meditation, exercise, yoga, CBT, acupuncture, reflexology, hypnotherapy as well as anti-depressants…. Naz told us that there is a whole diverse literature emerging, though sparse evidence has substantiated the effectiveness of complementary therapies.

Importantly, the mechanisms by which they work are unknown, partly explaining why we haven’t been able to develop more targeted interventions. We do know that exercise releases feel-good hormones and the link between mind and body isn’t under dispute.

The majority of those who took part in our discussion had sought support for their mental health and general well-being in some shape or form, and many have taken up new challenges and hobbies. Strong themes of taking control of health and fitness, peace of mind and well-being emerged, although with modification as many of us find ourselves unable to pick up where we left off at diagnosis in terms of demanding jobs and stressful lifestyles.

Fatigue is an issue for so many, and limits energy and often the enthusiasm for high maintenance mental and physical regimes. As the trauma of a breast cancer diagnosis leads to a reassessment of priorities, so a measure of balance is often preferred to being over-busy. Learning to relax, rest, and perhaps meditate, is a huge challenge in our driven high-achieving superwoman society. The strongest message coming from the discussion is the desire to find what works, and to draw mental strength from it.

A common story from our women is that while in active treatment they were coping well, moving from appointment to appointment, dealing with harsh side effects and adjusting to the fact of their diagnosis. Some worked through treatment as a distraction, others took time off, and for most it was just a case of getting through it. Once active treatment has finished and there is time for reflection, many women find themselves unhinged and vulnerable, unsure of themselves and their capabilities. Physical changes, mental fog, an uncertain future – all contribute to a particular type of post-traumatic stress.

Our wonderful women have found, or are finding their way through all of this, and their strategies are as diverse and unique as they are. They run and write poetry, they meditate and try hypnotherapy, they learn mindfulness and create with glass. They take up dancing, learn to swim, have a go at art therapy, try yoga, Nordic walking or join a choir. They make jewellery, care for their children, or grandchildren, they walk in nature, read a book, write a book. Many of us described experiencing anxiety, low mood and some of us depression, and while medication has its place, it is interesting to note how many women were determined to deal with it by other means than medication.

Counselling is a popular choice, though some of us had found it hard to access appropriate services. It was valued most when available via Macmillan or support centres and many found it helpful to have an objective space in which to process their feelings and come to terms with their experiences. It’s common not to want to share everything with friends and family for fear of upsetting them, and of course groups such as ours come into their own here too. Our discussion included women with primary and secondary diagnoses, and an important factor for our members with secondary breast cancer is to find activities which allow them to live their lives without being constantly reminded about cancer. We all relish ordinary stuff like hanging out with friends and family as well as seeking support from specialist organisations.

What shines through our discussion is our determination and grit, our desire to find a new normal after diagnosis and to live each day as well as we can.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please contact is by facebook message


With thanks to Marie for her lovely photo!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Imposter Syndrome ~ Andria

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Mr Darcy told Bridget Jones that he ‘liked her just the way she was’.  I have often wished that I could like me just the way I was and that wish started way before the cancer diagnosis.

It was only recently after reading an article (in The BRiC Centre's group) about expectations of women dictated by society as well as the individual women and how the continuing striving to be the perfect wife, mother, professional etc. is starting to take its toll on physical and mental health.

In this article it mentioned ‘Imposter Syndrome’, the pressure that we place on ourselves to be perfect and the worry that we will be found out to be flawed in some way. I was able to relate to this feeling in almost all areas of my life. As a mum, not being good enough, not being pretty or witty enough and certainly not being fun enough. As a wife I experienced a similar theme with the first husband (not the amazing second one!), not good enough, pretty enough or sexy enough and all confirmed when he left me for a younger, prettier, sexier lady.

As a social worker this theme has also continued. I feel that I am not good enough, that I will be found out as being a fraud, an imposter. I know from my supervisions, appraisals and feedback from colleagues and service users that I am good at my job, so why don’t I believe it? I guess I would need to look further back to see where these feelings come from but for now I am able to recognise that this is something I do and am able to quietly challenge myself and my thoughts and feelings.

So I was shocked reading that article that I also relate this feeling of being an imposter to my cancer diagnosis! It’s taken me some days reflecting on this, to try to work out why I feel like this and I think it’s because I didn’t have to have Chemotherapy or radiotherapy - thank goodness!!

People have helped to reinforce that feeling of being a fraud, an imposter. ‘You got off lightly’, ‘It’s three years are you still thinking about it?’ and ‘At least you didn’t need chemo’, are some of the platitudes I have experienced. I am lucky, I know that. I did get off lightly because I didn’t need chemo but I have lost both my breasts. I have had a chemical induced and then surgically induced menopause and I am on hormone tablets for another 7 years with all the fun side effects that come with that. I still live with the fear that the cancer may come back.

And after the diagnosis, I haven’t run any marathons, or baked a huge number of cakes to raise money, the imposter inside of me is berating me telling me that I couldn’t even do the fundraising bit properly. My calmer more rational side is telling me that I have got on with doing what I do best…being a mum, a wife and a social worker.

I realised whilst writing this that this feeling of being an imposter is one of the reasons I don’t go to any physical support groups and rely heavily on the online support of the ‘Building Resilience in Breast Cancer Group’. I think I feel ashamed that I had cancer and didn’t need to go through some of the horrendous treatments that my online friends have had to experience. Just reading that sentence is astounding and so sad.

So I can continue to challenge myself and I can change the way I view things.  I can start to be proud of who I am, the good mum, the good wife and a competent professional.

I am Andria. I am a good mum, I am a good wife and I am a good social worker. I have had breast cancer.

I need to stop apologising for the areas that I think I am lacking in and embrace me just the way I am.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Support Groups and Organisations

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Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 11th May 2017


Our Sunday discussion this week was all about groups, charities and organisations from which people have received valuable support. 

As it is Mental Health Awareness week, our centre's goal of helping women with a diagnosis of breast cancer to build their resilience sits nicely alongside cognitive capability and drawing on mental strength to increase well-being. A sense of belonging to a group or t
eam, and the sharing of common yet unique experiences with others, is well known to contribute hugely to mental health.

It was gratifying to find that so many women had received such great support from their local hospitals and cancer centres, but also disconcerting to find considerable inconsistency across the UK. Some of the charities listed are local, some national. Some enterprising women have filled gaps by starting their own support groups and other initiatives, which may help to provide inspiration for others to do the same. This list is by no means exhaustive, but we hope that by putting our heads together and sharing these resources we may be of help to others seeking support. The best known support organisations such as MacMillan and Breast Cancer Care are of course available to all. 

The organisations discussed can be found in the existing resource tab here in Panning for Gold: RESOURCES

If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please contact us via Facebook


Thanks to Sally for allowing us to use her beautiful photo.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Turning Down the Volume on Cancer

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Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 4th May 2017

Turning Down the Volume On Cancer

How do we not allow our cancer to dominate our thoughts or define us? How are we more than this diagnosis?

Naz introduced our weekly discussion by reminding us that we had found that cancer is not a chapter in our lives that we can put behind us, but we take it forward with us. We are hypervigilant for signs that our cancer is back or progressing. Our emotional and cognitive brains become out of balance, with our emotional brain dominating as it remains on high alert following our trauma. Naz’s research work looks at cognitive interventions which strengthen the seesaw relationship between the emotional and cognitive brains, exercising and challenging the cognitive brain in order to regulate the emotional brain. 

Many of our members have adopted the popular proven cognitive practices which help to restore the balance, namely mindfulness, CBT and support groups. Our discussion highlighted the value of sharing fears and anxieties with those who understand, and the compassion showed by members for each other's stories was particularly apparent this week.

As you might expect, time is a healer, and the longer a woman shows no evidence of disease following diagnosis, the lower the cancer volume may become. However, for many, fear is constant and upsetting. Many find keeping busy helps, and distract themselves with continuous activity. Poor sleep may find us being visited by cancer demons in the small hours, when anxiety finds a high decibel level. Humour is a great way to dispel fear, and many find spending time with friends and family, doing ordinary normal stuff, is the best way to forget about cancer once in a while.

For those undergoing treatment, the noise of cancer is deafening. Some women turn it down by numbing or intellectualising their feelings. Others are bravely immersing themselves in the high volume and may be feeling desolate, unwell and miserable. However we cope, we are not alone, and our group helps us all through these dark times.

Turning to face our fear through acceptance, and then taking control by concentrating on our own well-being, is helpful. We were reminded that the noise of cancer can be a positive in that it never lets us forget to listen to our bodies, and it makes sure we remember how precious life is. 

Our discussion, which included women with primary and secondary breast cancer, reminded us all that whatever happens, with support and the practice of resilience we can live our best lives, with the cancer noise sometimes gentle in the background and sometimes harsh and intrusive. The seesaw may be out of balance, but we are never alone on it. 

If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please leave your name in the comments.


Thank you Debbie for letting us use this beautiful image!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ How Does Breast Cancer Impact on Priorities and Goals?

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Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 28th April 2017


'I am a human being not a human doing....'

In this week's discussion, we shared the different ways that living with breast cancer and its effects impacts on our priorities and goals.

Our discussion, which included women with primary and secondary breast cancer, highlighted that the shock of a cancer diagnosis forces us to face our mortality, bringing our lives and identities into sharp focus. Many of us described experiencing a 'wake-up call', perhaps we had always put others' needs first and felt we must assert our own needs; perhaps we felt less tolerant of what now seem minor complaints and irritations; perhaps we had reconnected with our values, rediscovering what's important to us. Most of us shared that we had become more aware of the passing of time; we had realised we must worry less, if we can, and live according to our values.

But primary and secondary breast cancer also brings significant changes - pain, fatigue, menopausal and fertility issues, brain fog and emotional vulnerability - which affects all aspects of our lives, our womanhood, self-esteem, jobs, children and day to day functioning.

Our discussion highlighted the varied and unique ways we face these challenges and the remarkable ways we adapt to changes imposed on us by cancer and it's treatments; for some of us this meant focusing on 'being'; on slowing down, stepping back; perhaps we had discovered we must live the life we have rather than constantly striving for something out of reach. For some of us this meant 'doing'; sometimes as a way of proving that cancer could not rob us of the lives that we so valued; some of us were seeking out new experiences or challenges, for instance travelling, outdoor pursuits or campaigning. Some of us, particularly, but not solely women with secondary breast cancer, shared the different ways they were adapting and adjusting to significant losses alongside dealing with their health needs, giving up careers and valued activities.

Naz reminded us that in essence, resilience is the ability to adapt to life changing events to accommodate our 'new selves'. There is research to show that the ability to accommodate these changes (which is inevitably hard) predicts psychological well-being and lower levels of anxiety and depression, whereas cognitive avoidance has been shown to increase levels of anxiety and depressive related vulnerability.
For some of us, adjustments have been hard to make even though we recognise our changed priorities, perhaps we face barriers which we cannot overcome, perhaps our losses have felt unbearable. Here, being kind to ourselves and practising self-compassion can help us to reach a position of acceptance.


Thank you Karen for allowing us to use this stunning photo!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Our Favourite Things

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Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 20th April 2017


As an Easter treat our Sunday discussion focused on the little things we do that make us feel better. One of the keys to self-compassion is knowing what helps and making sure we make time for it. Naz talked about making the most of our micro-moments of positivity. She also believes that an eye for little precious moments of joy can be created as well as discovered.

Many of our members have endured invasive surgery and harsh treatments that have attacked the core of their femininity. It's no surprise that many of them seek to look their best, as this helps them to feel good about their changed bodies. However, as the list of feel-good activities shows, the pampering is only a small part of the story, with many women finding their greatest pleasure in being active and challenging their minds. Spending time with friends and family is also high on the list of uplifting activities.

Worthy of special mention is Look Good Feel Better, a workshop specifically for women with breast cancer, designed to help them apply make-up following treatment. 

These are a few of our favourite things! With thanks to lovely member Bal for the aspirational photo!

We love make-up, meditation, music, mountains, massage and mindfulness; shopping, shoes and swimming; the sea, strolling, studying and singing; solitude and socialising; candles, crafting, new clothes and crisp clean cotton sheets; fragrances, family, fitness, fundraising, films, friends, flowers and face masks; coffee, children, cooking, chocolate and candles; books, baths and baking; tattoos, trips out and therapies; holidays, hot tubs, hobbies, new hairstyles, horses and high heels; pets, photography, potions and colour change nail polish; reading, reflexology, running and Reiki; gardens and a glass of wine; walking and writing; audiobooks and art; dancing; yoga; nature, normality, and an attitude of gratitude. As one member put it, 'I remind myself that every day is breathtakingly beautiful. '


Friday, 14 April 2017

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Impact of Breast Cancer on Family

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Summary of our weekly group discussion ~ 14th April 2017


"I need to know the people close to me are okay...."
In this week's discussion, we explored the impact of breast cancer on our families.

Breast cancer impacts on our children, partners, parents, siblings and wider family relationships.

At a time we most need support, our families are under enormous stress and we heard about the different ways people cope and express their feelings; that sometimes families gather together to face our diagnosis with us, but that for others it seems too much to bear and they remove themselves or don't talk to us about our cancer. We heard that there is love and laughter and inevitably there is tension and stress. We heard that some people and relationships crumble, but others are strengthened and renewed.

A universal concern in the group was the potential impact of breast cancer on our children, particularly young children, those with vulnerabilities and at transition points. We heard about the different ways younger and older children expressed their feelings - some, but not all asked questions, or talked about their fears, sometimes behaviour was challenging; some struggled with school or academic work; some support and care for us.
Those of us with partners were aware of the impact of our cancer diagnosis on them, we worried that no-one was looking out for them, that they didn't share their feelings and fears with us, that they were under pressure to be strong. We heard about the amazing variation in the way that partners supported us, practically and emotionally, whereas others simply could not.

Whether we have primary breast cancer, a recurrence, or secondary breast cancer was important - some individuals and families had coped well during one bout of cancer, but then struggled further on. Other factors included - whether we were single parents, had caring responsibilities ourselves, for very young children and elderly parents, and some of us felt a strong sense of responsibility to protect them from the burden of our illness.

Naz only found a few pieces of research on this subject, these argued that that children struggled emotionally and were rated as less competent by their parents, compared with children from families with no breast cancer. However, she considered these results carried biased perceptions from parents and that objective measures of well-being, as well as reports directly from children should be collected over time. A good study, looking at the long-term effects of breast cancer on physical and emotional outcomes, is lacking.

When we previously discussed emotional vulnerability in spouses and partners, we learned that psychosocial support is missing; that partners of those with recurrent breast cancer suffered from high levels of anxiety; that male partners are especially at risk of high vulnerability as they tend not to be open to emotional expression and, as some of us experienced in our group, silently suffer, become unresponsive or can’t find the words.

Not all relationships survive the crisis of breast cancer. Yet, at the heart of our vulnerabilities lay stories of resilience, of women coming through the dark days to meet new partners, of children stronger, more empathic and confident, even though the hidden fears remain. It is clear that our families face our diagnosis with us, it affects them, and this in turn, affects us.

If you are a woman living in the UK with a diagnosis of breast cancer and you would like to join our private group, please leave your name in the comments.