Three lessons breast cancer care providers can learn from “Life Interrupted”

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26, I had no idea what to expect. Looking back, there are so many things I wish I’d known when I was beginning my journey. Over the years, my feelings have been echoed in the comments from hundreds of young women and black women diagnosed with breast cancer. Many of us struggle to navigate our cancer journeys, in part, because we’re trying to find our way in a community and a healthcare system that is not designed to acknowledge our “unique” experiences. 

Here are three lessons I believe breast cancer healthcare providers can learn from the documentary “Life interrupted” to help women better navigate their journeys: 

1.          Patients want to be treated like more than a disease

While our journeys with our cancer care team begin with our diagnosis, our lives neither began, nor will they end there. Too many times, women are treated with no regards to the life they have and especially not the life they want to have when the fight is over. 

Paula’s decision to begin each woman’s journey by exploring their childhood and introducing their support system (or lack thereof) was a great reminder that we, as patients, come with more than medical history; we have cultures, family structures, financial circumstances and a variety of factors that make up who we are and how we want to be treated. 

2.          Patients want to be heard

I think it was awesome to see Paula talk about how she did not initially agree with her doctor’s breast surgery recommendation, and she showed how her breast surgeon was willing to explain the procedure to her in detail. I think it was wonderful to see how Debi asked her doctor to give her a chance to freeze embryos, even though they wanted her to start treatment. I, on the other hand, was told to “focus on the cancer” when I asked questions about the impact of hormone therapy on my fertility -- I no longer see that oncologist. 

The reality is we, as patients, should be encouraged to advocate for ourselves and honestly, doctors should expect and respect that. We should understand why decisions are being made. We should also understand the impact, physical and mental, of treatment on our bodies, relationships, etc. I think some doctors fear if they tell us too much, we won’t want to follow their protocol, but I, personally, find it difficult to trust a doctor who won’t provide me with all the information I need to make informed treatment decisions. 

3.          Patients want to be supported beyond active treatment

I’ve heard it said time and time again, and I’ve even lived it firsthand, adjusting to life when active treatment ends is the hardest part. I sincerely believe mental health services should be included in cancer treatment plans. So much changes in a short period of time and suddenly, the security of always being under the watchful eye of a physician is gone.  

No one tells us how to rebuild our self-esteem when the surgeries stop, or even worse, when the surgeries fail. No one explains some of us won’t be able to pick up our lives where we left them before our diagnosis. No one prepares us for the collateral damage of breast cancer treatment, yet the medical community absolutely knows it exists. So while I don’t expect my oncologist to have therapy sessions with me, I think it’s a reasonable expectation that patients are off boarded with the same care and intentionality as we are on boarded for treatment. We should be able to close that chapter of our lives with resources and services to help put our lives back together. 

“Life interrupted” is not only a beautiful portrayal of what many women describe as “the fight of their lives,” it sheds light on the importance of taking a holistic approach to treatment; one that acknowledges the full being of the patient, makes treatment decisions a collaborative process and supports women into the next steps of their journey.