World Cancer Day – tackling the stigma of Breast Cancer

World Cancer Day is marked around the world on 4 February to raise awareness of the global impact of cancer and increase understanding of prevention, detection, treatment and care.

The importance of discussing this disease on World Cancer Day cannot be overlooked – after all, Breast Cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed diseases among South African women.

According to Dr Justus Apffelstaedt, a specialist surgeon with an interest in breast, thyroid and parathyroid health as well as soft tissue surgical oncology, breast cancer can carry all sorts of stigmas around self-image and sexuality.

“In recent times treatment has advanced significantly and a breast cancer diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it was once perceived to be.  The down side though is that the treatments can expose patients to side-effects which can impact mental health. This is why recognising the impact of breast cancer and its treatment on long-term outcomes, like your mental health, is so important,” explains Apffelstaedt.

Fear of death, disruption of life plans, changes in body image and self-esteem, changes in social role and lifestyle, and financial and legal concerns are some of the significant issues.

That being said, serious depression or anxiety is not experienced by everyone who is diagnosed with cancer.  Studies have shown that major depression affects approximately 25% of patients and the good news is that it has recognisable symptoms that are treatable[1]. The treatment journey faced as a patient should be looked at holistically by your team of doctors.

“We have a responsibility to not just treat your physical but to take in to account your emotional well-being too,” says Apffelstaedt.

Regular mental health check-ins should be standard.

“Doctors should be proactive about screening for depression throughout treatment and if there are signs of depression then you should be guided towards suitable support systems – whether that is support groups, private therapy and/or medication,” adds Apffelstaedt.

There are some practical things you can do that will help you navigate your diagnosis and treatment while minimising your risk of depression. 

  • Set realistic day-to-day goals. You need to be gentle with yourself and not expect that you will be able to do everything you did in the past.
  • Human connection is important, especially if you are an older patient. Try to be with other people for at least an hour a day.
  • It is important that you have someone to talk to and confide in. Whether it’s a professional, friend or family member.
  • Participation in positive events/actions can be very helpful. Movies, sporting events, playing music, painting, etc.
  • Good nutrition is vital. A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein will bolster the immune system and aid in your well-being.
  • Exercise is proven to reduce stress and ease depression.
  • Alcohol should be avoided as it is known to make depression worse and can interfere with antidepressant medicine.

It’s important to note however, that not all of these will work for everyone and if you are showing signs of depression it is essential that you speak to your doctor and get the medical help you need. 


[1] Massie MJ, Holland JC: The cancer patient with pain: psychiatric complications and their management. Med Clin North Am 71 (2): 243-58, 1987.  [PUBMED Abstract]; Lynch ME: The assessment and prevalence of affective disorders in advanced cancer. J Palliat Care 11 (1): 10-8, 1995 Spring.  [PUBMED Abstract]