Liam Butler interviews Unbreakable Spirit author Karen McMillan
Karen, Unbreakable Spirit shares the stories of people who have survived cancer and of those who are terminally ill. Did you find that people who were able to accept their diagnosis enjoyed a better quality of life than those who battled to come to terms with their disease?
Most definitely. All the people I interviewed who accepted their diagnosis had a much better quality of life. They focussed on getting through their treatments and back to ‘normal’ life. Or if terminally ill, they focused on whatever meant the most to them for their remaining time. More often than not spending quality time with loved ones, but sometimes finishing off some project of lasting legacy, such as a memoir, videos or letters for the family. They weren’t wasting time and negative energy fighting their diagnosis.
You also share the story of people who have had loved one die from cancer. How valuable is grief counselling for older people?
I think for anyone who feels stuck at some stage of the grief cycle, counselling is invaluable for anybody, regardless of age.
Your interviews with hospice workers, oncologists, GPs, a counsellor, surgeon and breast physician provide insight into the reality of what it means to be a health professional serving people who manage cancer. What do you think helps make such a career sustainable long term?
From my interviews, several factors stood out. Firstly, the sense of personal satisfaction they got from the job. Many found it extremely rewarding to be saving lives or to be enhancing someone’s life in some way. Another factor was getting to a stage where they had the skills to do the job well, and to be empathic but to achieve some professional distance. It was also crucial to get the support of their peers, to be able to discuss problems with them, or even have professional counselling. Many also mentioned the importance of exercise, holidays and having interests outside their profession.
Karen, you also share your story about managing breast cancer. With so many stakeholders giving advice on how to manage cancer how did you decide whose advice to follow and not feel anxious that you are not adhering to other suggestions?
I think the key is to find a GP you trust and respect when you are healthy and well – as they are the pivotal person who will see you through your journey with cancer. Also, I had been going to the same breast clinic for many years before being diagnosed with breast cancer. I had built up a relationship of trust with my breast physician, long before the day she had to deliver bad news. I immediately liked my surgeon and my oncologist. All of them worked closely as a team and had many multi-disciplinary meetings to discuss my case. I felt extremely confident with their advice, and I wasn’t presented with conflicting information from my team.
It was easy to ignore the advice from non-medical people at this time. My health professionals were giving me excellent, researched information. When presented with alternative ideas that someone that a friend of a friend had apparently benefited from, I found myself thinking, where’s the studies or data to support this? It seemed that much of this advice came from wishful thinking or ignorance.
I was lucky that I had such wonderful health professionals looking after me – but if I wasn’t comfortable with anyone I would have asked to see someone else. I think it is crucially important to feel comfortable with the people who are treating you, especially the key people like your surgeon and oncologist.
If you would like to win your own copy of Karen’s book, CLICK HERE . PLease note, competition closes 8/9/15 and is open to NZ residents only.