Supporting pregnant women with breast cancer
Cancer nurse educator and JCU PhD student, Sara Hurren, is exploring the healthcare experiences of a little-known group of breast cancer sufferers – those who are diagnosed with the disease during pregnancy.
This year, she enrolled in the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program to support her research into this gruelling scenario, which affects one in 1000 pregnant women in Australia – a figure that is likely to grow as more women delay pregnancy until later in life, when they are at greater risk of developing breast cancer.
“How do these women interact with a health system that is looking after two such radically different aspects of their health at such a crucial time?” observed Sara, who educates nurses involved in inpatient and outpatient cancer services, radiation and palliative care at Cairns Hospital, as well as two satellite services in Innisfail and Atherton.
“One component of the health system, maternity and gynaecology services, represents joy and hope, while the other component, oncology services, is shadowed by fear and uncertainty. How do these different services actually collaborate with the woman and her family about their needs?”
She plans to undertake a qualitative study, initially involving interviews with women in Far North Queensland who have experienced gestational breast cancer (breast cancer during pregnancy) over the past five years, but hopes to expand her research to include women statewide and even nationally.
Breast cancer is a subject close to Sara’s heart. Raised on the Gold Coast, she obtained a Bachelor of Health Science (Nursing) degree from the Footscray Institute of Technology, Melbourne, in 1986, then opted to specialise in cancer nursing, in light of her grandmother’s experience of breast cancer.
“When you are young, you feel out of your depth, trying to understand health issues such as cancer. I was looking to learn more about how it could be treated; what the options are,” she said.
She spent 22 years working as a nurse in Victoria and New South Wales, where she obtained a Master of Health Science degree from Southern Cross University in 2006, while based in Lismore, prior to moving to Cairns 10 years ago to be closer to family.
In 2017, Sara ventured back into study to undertake a one-year Graduate Certificate in Research and Methodology at JCU, which included a qualitative study on the impacts of lymphoedema, a potential side effect following removal of lymph nodes under the arm during breast cancer surgery and radiation to prevent the spread of the disease.
Her research uncovered widespread misinformation about how to avoid the debilitating, sometimes painful, condition, which causes a build-up of fluids in the arm or breast. During her study, she met two women who had suffered gestational breast cancer, undergone treatment, and subsequently spent four years carrying their children on one side of their body, in the mistaken belief it would help them avoid lymphedema.
“Their experiences impacted me quite profoundly, because after all my years in nursing, I had not thought about this particular group of women,” she said.
When Sara heard about the level of support that the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program offers PhD students, it provided additional impetus to embark on her PhD study this year, as a member of Cohort 16.
She relished attending the Program’s induction block week on the JCU Townsville campus in February.
“It was really beneficial. Just having a solid week to do our professional development and learn all about different styles of research, as well as academic writing, literature reviews and ethics,” she said. “The Program even assists with grant and scholarship applications.”
Meeting other members of the 14-strong cohort was another highlight of the week; fostering the beginnings of a strong collegial spirit.
“I’m already making such beautiful connections with the other PhD students,” Sara said. “We are encouraging each other. It’s not competitive at all. It’s also fascinating to mix with students from different disciplines and see what they are researching. We are from different backgrounds, but we’re all in it together. It’s very uplifting.”
She hopes her own research findings will enhance the delivery of healthcare services to pregnant women battling breast cancer. “For me, that’s the end game,” she said.