Framing Lymphoedema Following Breast Cancer Surgery: Women’s Experiences and Perceptions of Body Image, QOL and Support

By Karen Chun and Eileen O’Connor.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

According to the National Cancer Institute (US) estimates, 1 in 8 women born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some time in their lives (National Cancer Institute, 2006). Of those women who undergo breast cancer surgery, almost one-third will develop upper-body lymphoedema (Vignes, Porcher, Arrault, & Dupuy, 2007). Lymphoedema is a chronic health condition characterized by the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the subcutaneous tissues resulting in arm swelling and can significantly affect one’s physical and psychological health. It can also impact a woman’s body image and negatively affect one’s quality of life (QOL). The diagnosis of breast cancer is in itself a significant stress to those who have been affected, and women who undergo breast cancer treatments continue to struggle with its effects long after the operation (Thomas-Maclean, 2005). The development of lymphoedema following breast cancer surgery further compounds the problems women are faced with in dealing with breast cancer’s lingering effects. Although a significant body of research on lymphoedema has developed over the past decade, most lymphoedema studies are quantitative in nature, and focus primarily on scientific aspects of the disease, the effectiveness of treatments, and measurements of QOL (e.g., through mobility measurements) in lymphoedema patients. The literature reveals that there are still gaps in knowledge on education, communication, and effective practices to improve the QOL for individuals living with lymphoedema. This research contributes to this growing field of research through a qualitative analysis of twelve women’s narratives on lymphoedema using Brown’s (1995) model of framing disease and illness. Investigating issues that emerge during the lymphoedema framing process will provide valuable insight into women’s experiences and perspectives on body image, support, and well-being, all of which impact one’s QOL and positive health outcomes. Results from semi-structured interviews with twelve women living with lymphoedema are discussed and analyzed using a gender-based analysis. A qualitative analysis of women’s experiences not only reveals these women’s perceptions and experiences of living with lymphoedema, but also provides a forum for their voices to be heard.

Keywords: Lymphoedema, Breast Cancer, Quality of Life, Well-being, Framing Illness, Social Supports

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 5, Issue 11, pp.113-126. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 676.163KB).

Karen Chun

M.A. Graduate Student, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Karen Chun, MA, School of Human Kinetics, Faculty of Health Sciences, is currently a project assistant in the Resilience and High Risk Populations Research Lab at the University of Ottawa. Ms. Chun has received a RCSCS graduate student scholarship and university-wide recognition for research excellence in the area of women’s health.

Dr. Eileen O’Connor

Associate Professor, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Eileen O’Connor, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the School of Human Kinetics, and Affiliate Scientist at the Institute of Population Heath, University of Ottawa. She is an historian by training, and is interested in the field of women’s health. Current projects include an analysis of gender, leisure and health in a history of the public baths in Ottawa. Other research projects focus on the development of e-portfolios to enhance critical thinking and reflective learning through experiential learning.

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