Empowering young breast cancer patients

Hannah Butler is a second-year Therapeutic Radiography student, sharing her experiences working with breast cancer patients at The Royal Stoke University Hospital.

My placement is based in the Cancer Centre at The Royal Stoke University Hospital. I have also spent some time at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton. During my time on placement, I have seen such a variety of patients with different treatment backgrounds. Some may have had surgery or chemotherapy, or some may be palliative and the radiotherapy is used to relieve the symptoms caused by cancer. I have also seen some patients undergoing breast cancer clinical trials.   

In my first year, I shadowed a senior radiographer during a first day chat with a woman diagnosed with breast cancer. She was undergoing an intensive chemo and radiotherapy treatment regime, and I couldn’t help but notice that she was very young. I took the opportunity to ask her about how she was diagnosed with cancer and also about the signs that had led her to seek help.  

She disclosed that it was an accidental discovery whilst showering on holiday. She sought advice from a doctor after feeling a small lump. This lump could only ever be felt whilst she was in certain positions, and she reported that it seemed to vanish amongst the breast tissue and could not easily be located. Despite this, the doctor sent her for further tests that led to the diagnosis and subsequent treatments. 

I have found that it is younger women that seem to report that they accidentally find lumps when they were not intentionally checking for anything unusual. I see people who are much younger than myself diagnosed with breast cancer and some of them have shared how they discovered the changes which led to their diagnosis. This experience has taught me the importance of getting to know my body so that I can tell what is normal for me so that I can spot any unusual changes. I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to check their chest regularly to find out what is normal for their body.

It can be emotionally difficult to see patients go through a lot in such a short period of time from their initial diagnosis. Absorbing information can be distressing and traumatic for some patients and often, the information can not be fully processed within one conversation. Communication with a patient should consist of careful listening, good verbal and non-verbal communication, empathy and self-awareness. It can alleviate patient stress to sometimes talk through what the experience will be like from a sensory point of view as most patients are unsure of what to expect from the first radiotherapy treatment. 

It may surprise some, but the radiotherapy department is quite a cheerful and positive place. Seeing the same people each day can be great. Good days, bad days, I get to see such strength and it inspires me. I feel so proud to be a part of the treatment team. Even more so when the patient has completed their treatment and rings the bell! The whole team will take the time to stand and clap for them. It is such a wonderful and emotional moment.   

To me, Therapeutic Radiography stood out amongst other courses as it combines patient care, science and complex technology to deliver lifesaving cancer treatment using high energy x-rays. Personally, I have lost friends and family members due to cancer, some taken far too soon. I am happy to study in such a rewarding and interesting field.   

It is important to seek advice from a doctor if anything seems unusual. I highly recommend COPPAFEEL.ORG for great advice and resources about how to check your breast to spot any signs or symptoms that could be a cause for concern.    

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