Living with and beyond breast cancer

Posted on 4th November 2013

In the wake of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an academic from the University of Chester who specialises in psychosocial oncology discusses the psychological impact of living with cancer for both the patient and those closest to them.

Significant numbers of breast cancer patients, and their families, are emotionally distressed by their illness ... we need to do more work to understand how we can reduce this impact better.
Dr Nick Hulbert-Williams

Dr Nick Hulbert-Williams, from the University’s Department of Psychology, has recently contributed to Breast Cancer Campaign’s Gap Analysis 2013 – a landmark piece of research which has identified 10 critical gaps that exist in current breast cancer research.

These gaps are in the key areas of genetics, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and support, but as well as identifying these areas the research paper – entitled: ‘Critical research gaps and translational priorities for the successful prevention and treatment of breast cancer’ – also sets out eight key ambitions for overcoming breast cancer by 2050. Dr Nick Hulbert Williams

One of these ambitions – subtitled ‘Living with and beyond breast cancer’ – is that by 2025 all those diagnosed with breast cancer, and the people close to them, will receive individually tailored information and support to meet their needs to help them live with and manage the consequences of breast cancer and its treatment.

Dr Hulbert-Williams, pictured,was part of a group of specialists tasked with reviewing the literature on psychological aspects of the cancer experience for this section of the report.

He explained: “This was a very important piece of work and the task undertaken was immense. “As a research community we need to make sure that research funding is being well-spent and prioritised to the most important areas.

“This gap analysis allowed us as a research community to assess what we currently know about breast cancer, its treatment, and its psychosocial impact, and what important questions we need to be addressing over the next few years.

“My own expertise is on the psychological impact of cancer diagnosis for the person diagnosed, and for their family, and what we can do to improve that experience for them. This is the area of knowledge that I researched and advised upon as part of the gap analysis.

“Significant numbers of breast cancer patients, and their families, are emotionally distressed by their illness and our analysis of the literature demonstrated that we need to do more work to understand how we can reduce this impact better – psychological interventions can be effective, but we need to explore ways to offer and effectively deliver these to a bigger proportion of those affected.

“The big challenge ahead for work in this area is that despite everything we know about the emotional impact of breast cancer, most funding is spent on work seeking a medical cure; whilst this is a clearly important ambition, because this is still a long way off, we also need to commit funding to research into, and delivery of services to meet, the emotional side of cancer.”

Dr Hulbert-Williams is particularly interested in how people adjust to chronic and life-threatening illness, and the impact that this can have on their own, and their family’s well-being. His research explores why people’s responses to illness vary so much, and how psychologists can help them though this stressful life event.

He also leads the Psychosocial Oncology Research Group at the University of Chester and is Chair of the British Psychosocial Oncology Society (BPOS).