Surviving breast cancer | Gertrude Abela

Gertrude Abela, president of the Breast Care Support Group Europa Donna Malta – a member of the European Breast Cancer Coalition – talks on how the support group she forms part of helps women diagnosed with breast cancer

Gertrude Abela
Gertrude Abela

Gertrude Abela, now 65, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 53. She had found out while she was lying in bed when she felt a small lump the size of a pea under her arm.

"I was surprised, and did not think it was anything serious at that point in time, but my hand kept moving towards the lump. I did not want to alarm my family and said nothing.

"I opened up with a friend who kindly offered to accompany me to my doctor who recommended I get an
ultrasound. The radiographer referred me to a surgeon for further investigations and the next thing I knew, I was operated upon a week later," Abela recalls.

Abela has gone public with her personal battle to raise awareness among young women who may not think they're at risk through the Breast Care Support Group.

Chances are that if you are reading this article, either you or someone close to you has been diagnosed with breast cancer or is at a high risk of suffering from it.

Asked if Abela had a family history of breast cancer, she said "that at that moment I thought not, but afterwards I remembered my aunt had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Since she lived abroad I never got to know her all that well".

So how was Abela's life affected due to the treatment she had to undergo?

"Just like a bad dream! It was a time of many ups and downs. Now, over 12 years later, it still seems unreal, but once you finish your treatment you look forward to a normal life again. I have learnt to live for the day!"

And what helped Abela stay positive?

"I have five children, my youngest was 11 years at the time and I had just become a grandmother for the first time so I had a lot to look forward to. I wanted to share my experience with other women so I joined the support group, to help spread awareness about breast cancer."

Breast cancer and the dance of denial

The "dance of denial" is when neither person involved wishes to make a move towards reality. Some patients never take that step. Twelve years down the line, Abela still thinks that what she experienced was unreal.

So when a woman receives a diagnosis of breast cancer, it must be devastating both on her and her family. I asked Abela how she felt to have experienced the initial shock, undergone the necessary treatment, and restored to good health?

"It is a highly devastating experience! You think that this is not happening to you, you are in denial, but after a while you realise that you have to fight for your life and family. So you go through your treatment with the hope of overcoming the disease. Being positive helps."

On the cautionary steps one must take to detect breast cancer in its early stages, Abela's advice is that "first of all be 'breast aware': meaning that you must check your breasts regularly and get to know what is normal for you. If you find something unusual, talk to your doctor who will examine you further and guide you accordingly. Remember that not every lump is malignant or worrying thing, for that matter.

"You cannot prevent breast cancer, but you can reduce the risks by living a healthy lifestyle, quitting smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, doing plenty of exercise (such as brisk walking), consuming  plenty of fruit and vegetables and avoiding  as much stress as possible."

Is breast cancer on the rise? If so, what are the biggest contributing factors?

Abela says that breast cancer is on the rise but people are more aware today and cancer is being diagnosed at an earlier stage, so that treatment could be more effective.

"Breast health awareness campaigns have helped to motivate women (and girls) to be more breast aware, and to do regular self-examinations and other related check-ups." 

Being diagnosed with breast cancer will undoubtedly bring about emotional changes. For the woman faced with mastectomy and reconstruction (maybe chemotherapy and/or radiation), the stressors are both generalised and specific. During the weeks or months before surgery, the individual may face enormous concerns related to body image and self-esteem, accompanied by fears and anxieties.

On health challenges and appearance breast cancer survivors face, apart from the thought of it recurring, Abela confirms that "the major challenge is the body's image after surgery, sexual issues, tiredness, physiological and socio-economical issues, anxiety about what may happen in the future, lack of support and last but not least, discrimination at the work place".

So, being a breast cancer survivor is no walk in the park despite the fact that one would have faced the biggest hurdles of all: passed the initial shock, chemo and radiotherapy stages.

And this is where the support group comes in.

Abela says that "our aim is to help women and their families who are passing through the traumatic experience of breast cancer.

"When a woman talks to someone who has already gone through the journey, she knows that she would be understood better.

"We offer free one to one counselling with a professional councillor for women in need of specialised help. We also do home visits for those requesting our help and hold monthly meetings for members in Malta and Gozo.

"The group offers a free 24/7 telephone support line and we refer any specialised medical questions to the breast care nurses while also issuing breast awareness books and leaflets, which we distribute at our breast awareness campaigns."

This month, the support group will be launching a DVD showing rehabilitation exercises follwing breast cancer surgery.

"We recorded these DVDs in Italy in collaboration with SOS Donna and the exercises were performed by two Maltese physiotherapists.

"Meanwhile, another initiative of the support group is the Hilda Schembri Memorial Lecture, aimed for the public and health professionals, which has been organised for the past 14 years."

On the National Breast Screening Programme, which kicked off in October 2009 and only ended last month, Abela says that "some people did not attend the invitation for breast screening because they either had gone for a mammogram already in the year preceding the national screening invitation or because of fear of a negative result. A small percentage did not bother attending.

"There were 28,462 invitations sent and 15,905 accepted.

117 cases were found to be malignant."

When asked if people living in certain towns or villages, where pollution was high, were more susceptible to breast cancer, Abela said that "according to the group's statistics, on evaluating the number of tumours detected over two-and-the-half years, there didn't seem to be a particularly high prevalence of people who hailed from a specific town or village.

"The bigger numbers came from areas with the highest population for obvious reasons but this cannot be taken as an indication of a higher prevalence in certain areas"