Why Learning the Science Behind My Condition Helps My Mental Health


When you are first diagnosed with breast cancer, there are so many things you must learn: what stage of cancer is a well-known descriptor, but you also learn about the various characteristics of your exact cancer. The important next words, from the reports from the initial needle biopsy, had to do with estrogen and progesterone positive or negative and, whether the cancer was HER2neu positive or negative. There are also differences in whether our cancer has spread to other parts of our body. This is one reason why a phrase I began to see as my research progressed is that, “it’s not breast cancer, it’s breast cancers.” And I started to be glad I’d liked biology, from high school on.

Just the language of cancer is overwhelming at first. The diagnosis and its details are important; they will determine the exact nature of the treatment plan you develop with your doctors. Your surgeon will use a lot of names of body parts and functions, and you should ask as many questions as you need to, to understand what she or he is telling you about the removal of your lesion. There are lots of new words and lots of pamphlets with explanations using more new words. I’m old enough to remember the first publishing of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and a breast cancer diagnosis has, for me, felt like a similar “I hadn’t planned on this, but I’m learning how my body works” experience.

I also was glad I like science when the first roadblock in my care occurred very early on: I arrived for a MRI ordered by my breast surgeon, and the technician at the facility turned me away because I’d not had a required blood test. I was furious. I’d driven over, gotten myself psyched to lie very still for an hour or so, and this guy named Bruce was telling me not very nicely to go home. But Bruce finally got through to me that the test was for my own good, to determine whether my kidneys could handle the contrast agent used during the MRI. Well, hey, that is in my best interest to know. So, I swallowed my fury (completely out of scale with what had happened, by the way; I was newly diagnosed and still quite emotional) and left, and got the important test taken care of right away.

Human biology also comes in handy when those test results come back. The reports give you lots of information, but it doesn’t become useful information until my doctor explains to me what they mean to her. I remember learning the importance of white blood cells in fighting infection, but I don’t understand the numeric values of the tests my doctor orders pertaining to white blood cells until I ask her what they mean. Now that I’m receiving chemo, that’s an important marker for my doctor to watch and for me to understand.

And, when your oncologist begins using the names of the chemo drugs, and even if, like me, you liked biology, your eyes might spin in your head! She will have printed information you can have on each drug. But the names are still not rolling off my tongue, after five infusions. I must remember to ask why their names must be made up so many disparate syllables…

The main thing I like about trying to understand the science side of this experience is that it helps my fears to subside. Once I feel I can understand the whys of the treatment plan, or why we can’t do something I thought we were going to do but my tests show we need to wait, I understand and I feel a little calmer. My doctor tells me now when I’ve asked her about something that scientists haven’t figured out yet, and that is good to know, too.

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