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How One Woman Beat the Odds Against Cancer, Body Betrayal and Scanxiety

02/03/2015 12:20 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT

Ask Sherry Abbott the colour of cancer and she'll say it's blue. The executive director of Beauty Gives Back, the charitable foundation of Canada's beauty industry, is speaking out on February 4th, World Cancer Day, about the emotional and psychosocial challenges of cancer -- challenges often ignored and rarely addressed despite the advances made in fighting the disease over the last few decades.

Abbott has had a long and remarkable career in the beauty industry in places as diverse as Canada and Indonesia. Through her work with programs such as Look Good Feel Better at www.lgfb.ca, she has met countless women who have struggled with the emotional hurdles of cancer. Surveys have shown that 87% of cancer survivors describe at least one psychosocial issue they have faced as moderate or severe, and 75 percent of cancer patients have felt shame and embarrassment about some of their bodily changes during their cancer treatment.

Abbott understands what women feel, not only through her work but also because she has experienced cancer herself. In fact, the last thing on Sherry Abbott's mind 25 years ago was raising awareness for cancer. It was 1989 when Abbott, excited as any young woman to take on the world, was told she had three months to live.

The diagnosis was stage four small cell ovarian cancer, a cancer with a poor prognosis especially when caught at a later stage. But instead of preparing to die, Abbott chose to fight the cancer in the most aggressive way available to her at the time: Surgery, chemo and radiation --or as it's commonly known, slash, poison and burn.

She dropped from 140 to 80 lbs, endured pain and nausea, gave up any dream of having a family, and subjected herself to numerous surgeries including the removal of dozens of lymph nodes. Radiation affected her spinal cord and left her with neuropathy, damage to the peripheral nerves that carry signals between the brain and the rest of the body; today she still uses a cane to help her with balance.

Survival statistics certainly were against her. "My mother died of skin cancer two years after I was diagnosed and I often feel that my final gift from her was the determination to never give up. I challenged my medical team. They told me of the disability risks from the treatment if I survived. I told them, 'You can't give up on me because I am not giving up on myself!"

So many people lose hope when they hear the stats on survival or the news of their diagnosis, she says. Cancer is overwhelming, the psychosocial challenges enormous. "The emotional aspect of cancer -- its diagnosis, its treatment -- is a big missing link in the cancer survival story."

At www.facingcancer.ca Abbott writes about the emotional fallout of the disease. If a woman is diagnosed with cancer, she writes, fear and uncertainty become constant companions.

In a recent phone conversation Abbott told me that the cancer blues can knock you off your feet: "You lose your sense of self, your self-confidence. You are unsure of what may lie ahead. There is a lot of grieving, grieving over the loss of relationships or independence. There were days I could not get out of bed."

In working with women who have had cancer, Abbott told me that fear, anxiety and sadness were commonly reported. "The anxiety that comes with the unknown is one of the biggest challenges. You are facing so many hurdles, you are ultimately alone and you feel lost. Cancer doesn't just attack your cells, it attacks your sense of self."

The ravages of treatment can bring what she calls "unexpected visitors", including the pity of friends, the anxiety of loved ones, and body betrayal or brain fog -- the shock of looking into a mirror and finding someone you don't recognize.

And the feelings don't vanish after treatment ends. "When you have been diagnosed, hope and healing become lifelong quests. When I would go for follow-ups after treatment, I would try to explain my anxiety to my doctors. I would tell them how overwhelmed I felt with the emotional turmoil I was in, and they would only say that's normal! Well, there was nothing normal about the way I felt." Cancer patients also report "scanxiety" -- the stress felt when facing, and waiting for results of, follow-up tests such as CT scans.

As World Cancer Day approaches, prevention and cure will be the focus. But Abbott reminds women that the cancer blues are real. At www.facingcancer.ca, she invites women with cancer everywhere to share the conversation about cancer blues: "Personally, I found it frustrating to be told that feeling discouraged and full of anxiety was normal," she says. "Because for me, it was anything but."