Every year, almost 56,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer.1 Despite it being one of the four most common cancers2, few people understand what it entails, from its signs and symptoms, to understanding the next steps following a diagnosis.
For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to Johnson & Johnson employees, Maria Sirotinina who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2022 and Graça Costa, who was diagnosed in 2019. In this Q&A, both women talk about their experiences with diagnosis and treatment, while going on to discuss the gaps in the education of breast cancer.
Can you describe your journeys to receiving your diagnosis?
Maria Sirotinina: This diagnosis was actually a big surprise! I didn't feel like anything was wrong. I had no symptoms and wasn’t experiencing any pain. I was simply enjoying life. Being as active as I was, I felt like everything was functioning well.
It was during my annual health check-up that my doctor had discovered suspicious lesions in my breasts. Upon further tests, I found out that I had breast cancer.
Graça Costa: Very similarly to Maria, I didn't have any symptoms. I didn't have any lumps, or feel any differently. I suspected nothing until I was informed during my annual health check-up that I had breast cancer.
What was your knowledge of breast cancer before? Did you know what to look out for?
Graça Costa: From a professional standpoint, we always think about the most dramatic cases: mastectomy, chemotherapy, and other harsh treatments. You automatically think of the worst and rarely think about the many positives of being diagnosed at an early stage.
I’m sure that, like me, people may reach out to their network of friends and colleagues, gathering information and approaching people who had been diagnosed before. When doing that, I realized how rare it is to find clear, digestible information.
We need the facts, numbers and outcomes, and also someone to calm us down from our initial worries. And that patient information – those stories from other people - are missing right now.
Maria Sirotinina: I didn’t have a lot of knowledge beforehand, so when I was diagnosed, I was forced into having a “crash course” in breast cancer in the following months. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people are facing a similar experience.
Talking to my colleagues and friends made me realize just how many people are touched in some way by breast cancer. I was shocked at how frequent this cancer is among women and even men.
How would you like to see awareness and early diagnosis increased?
Graça Costa: In a perfect world, discussions surrounding breast cancer would be normalized just as we do when talking about diabetes, hypertension and other diseases that are chronic in nature, life-threatening, and affect our quality of life and our self-esteem. But often, you need time to ask these questions, because there’s so much you don’t know and these questions must come out as you experience them.
For example, one of the things that might immediately spring to mind about breast cancer is that it only affects women. This isn’t true: it affects everyone who has a breast, which means all human beings. But many will not know what this means in terms of impact, treatments and so on.
Maria Sirotinina: There are different types of awareness. People get their information from different sources, and of course the types of diagnosis and treatment should be explained to people by their doctor. It’s also important to be an advocate for your health, don’t skip on those annual check-ups and it should be reinforced how important they are to people.
But it is also important to have groups for those who have gone through this already, and have stories and experiences to share with colleagues and people who were recently diagnosed. This can help people who need emotional and informational support too. These are great tools to support women, but also to increase awareness and spread knowledge.
Why do you think the discussion around breast cancer not yet normalised?
Graça Costa: Unfortunately, like many diseases, breast cancer still has some taboos around it because it involves intimate parts of the body. That can make us a bit more shy or cautious.
I also think it’s sometimes the case that we feel we did something wrong or feel ashamed of having cancer. Questions like should I have noticed it before? We need to start getting rid of those thoughts because it's not a lifestyle related disease, you’re not less or more of a woman, and you don’t need to hide it.
Women should feel powerful and drive their treatments, reconstruction and all they need to feel whole.
Maria Sirotinina: In my ideal world, this normalization would be seamlessly woven into a company’s diversity and inclusion efforts, to benefit both the individuals affected by breast cancer and their colleagues. Often, when people learn that someone has breast cancer, they struggle to know how to treat or communicate with them. It’s common for people to resort to assumptions such as “you poor thing, you probably won’t be able to work or do anything now”. While such comments have good intentions, they may in fact not be received this way. For me, it was important that I continued to work and lead as normal life as possible, it’s part of who I am. Providing support and resources within the diversity and inclusion framework would be valuable.
Graça Costa: Exactly, cancer does not define us.
Maria Sirotinina: There’s also an element of people’s support networks being under a lot of pressure, with them trying to mitigate anxiety both for their loved ones and themselves.
It took me a while to talk to my partner about everything because he was trying hard to be extremely positive.
Then came the realisation.
We just couldn’t continue like that and so we had an honest conversation in which he was able to tell me that he was scared too. And you know what? That’s ok. So, when the rest of my support network realised that they were able to talk to me about it, not only in a positive way, but in a way that let them support me without collapsing themselves, conversations became easier.
What would be your advice to those awaiting a possible diagnosis or treatment?
Maria Sirotinina: It is very important to be proactive with your health. Take part in screenings, don’t shy away from asking all the questions or doubts in your head. Most importantly, stay positive.
With each breast cancer journey being unique, it’s easy to listen to the different stories and get worried. Trust that your treatment will be successful. Appreciate every single step and achievements towards your better self. For me, I looked at every day I woke up like this: “today is going to be the best day ever.”
Graça Costa: The first step is acceptance! Admit that this is happening to you, especially how it may affect your self-esteem. As women, we sometimes don't realise how much it will affect one of the physical definitions of our womanhood, potentially forever. How does this affect you emotionally, psychologically? You need to acknowledge these thoughts as a start.
Mentor provides a number of options to help empower women with breast cancer, how important are/were these options to you during treatment?
Maria Sirotinina: It’s very important. When facing this type of diagnosis, you should know what the right options are as early as possible, and what the results of those options would be. When I was diagnosed, I was given a number of options from mastectomy to lumpectomy but didn’t know which was best for my circumstances. What are the healing processes like? Does that mean that I will have reconstruction surgery right away or will it be delayed? This is where awareness can really bring benefits to the patients.
Graça Costa: It really empowered me. When diagnosed with breast cancer, you can almost feel your power being taken away from you. Which means that not only the focus is on surviving, but there’s a part to it that is overcoming all of this and regaining your power. The beautiful thing about regaining your power is also being able to then regain your body back.
Knowing your options and having the opportunity to take those into account, knowing that someone else values that as much as you. That brings about an incredible change of mindset that lets you regain your self-esteem and the power over your body again.
- Cancer Research UK: Breast cancer statistics. Available here [Last accessed: October 2022]
- Cancer Research UK: Cancer incidence for common cancers. Available at: Cancer incidence for common cancers | Cancer Research UK [Last accessed: October 2022]
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