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Living with breast cancer and other conditions

As chronic conditions rarely exist in isolation, it is clear that there are specific challenges for women living with a chronic condition or disease who are diagnosed with breast cancer.

There is very little specific information or research on women in Australia who are diagnosed with breast cancer alongside another chronic condition, although we do know that chronic conditions in Australia, which include cancer, account for 90 per cent of all deaths[1].

Common chronic diseases in Australia include heart disease, diabetes, depression, respiratory diseases, arthritis and osteoporosis and neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Although having a disability does not mean a woman is at higher risk for breast cancer, statistically women with disabilities are more likely to be obese, have had chest radiation in the past, and to not have had children – all factors that increase the risk of breast cancer.

In addition, women with physical disabilities are at higher risk for delayed diagnosis of breast cancer, which can limit the treatment options available.

Screening

Early detection of breast cancer saves lives. All women are advised to have regular mammograms – the screening test for breast cancer – to help find breast cancer early.

Women with disabilities or some chronic conditions can face unique challenges with regard to their breast health – for example, there can be physical barriers that make healthcare settings awkward and distressing, such as getting into and holding position for a mammogram.

BreastScreen Australia centres are wheelchair accessible and the staff are experienced in helping all women feel comfortable. However, for women whose severe disabilities prevent them attending a screening centre, their GP can provide an alternative screening option to ensure they receive the appropriate level of care for their needs.

All women should discuss with their doctor the need for appropriate health screening and tests throughout their lives, or have a personal advocate (friend or family member) who can support their efforts to accessing the full range of health services.

Treatment

If diagnosed with breast cancer, the addition of an intense treatment plan for breast cancer on top of managing of their (often multiple) chronic condition can make daily challenges more difficult.

Breast cancer treatments (which can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone-replacement treatments) can cause short and long-term side-effects and also conflict with existing treatment plans.

Side-effects from cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, occur because they are made to kill growing cells – which means they don’t discriminate between cancerous and healthy cells. Side-effects such as fatigue and nausea are common and can worsen some chronic conditions.

A good GP, together with a supportive family member or friend, can help manage the process of diagnosis and treatment alongside other health issues.

 

[1] Australian Institute of Health & Welfare: http://www.aihw.gov.au/australias-health/2014/ill-health/#t2