Professor Diana Harcourt's work focuses on psychological treatment for breast cancer patients.

Monday 1 September 2014      Research
Researcher Profile: Professor Diana Harcourt

Breast cancer research isn’t always just about finding the cure; there are other support projects that also need addressing that aren’t always as noticeable as ground-breaking scientific development, but are no less important.

One such area is the field of psychological treatment for breast cancer patients. A diagnosis of breast cancer can have a serious emotional backlash, and one of the support projects we fund focuses on how best to handle this largely-untouched area of breast cancer research.

Professor Diana Harcourt is a leading psychologist in this area, and is one of the researchers in the Centre for Appearance at the University of the West of England (UWE).

Her interest in this field began around 20 years ago, while in her first job as a researcher, working on a project about women’s experiences of breast cancer diagnosis.

It was then when she first became aware of breast reconstruction surgery. After looking into it, she soon realised there was very little research on the psychological aspect surrounding reconstruction.

Working with Professor Harcourt

This spurred her into completing a PhD looking at how women decide whether or not to have reconstructive surgery.

Campaign’s first involvement with Professor Harcourt was to fund a PhD studentship that investigated women’s experiences with ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, a project fronted by Dr Fiona Kennedy at UWE.

Breast Cancer Campaign has since funded other PhDs under Professor Harcourt’s supervision. One study looked at black and south Asian women’s experiences with breast cancer, while her current PhD student is investigating how breast cancer patients affected by hair loss could be better supported emotionally.

‘In the past, research on body image was seen as a bit frivolous,’ says Professor Harcourt. ‘But our studies aren’t about looking good. They focus on something which I believe is fundamental – how you feel about your body. And over the years, health professionals have started to realise how much this affects breast cancer patients.’

Research

Most of Professor Harcourt’s research focuses on the after-effects of breast cancer treatment:

"I find it interesting that, for a lot of women, after their treatment is complete, people tell them, “It’s so wonderful, you’re fine,” but these women could be struggling with their appearance. The way they look and feel may have changed a lot since their initial diagnosis, and that can serve as a constant reminder of what they’ve been through."

Professor Harcourt goes on to say that a lot of the current treatment for women who have experienced hair loss revolves around introducing the patients to wigs, bandanas, and other apparel.

This, she argues, could be interpreted as trying to camouflage and hide the fact that they’ve lost their hair, instead of seeking to manage the new emotions they may have about their outward appearance.

The study headed by Professor Harcourt is ongoing, with a practice called expressive writing – where patients write about their emotions for 20 minutes a day – is currently being reviewed.

"There may be other approaches, but what I like about the expressive writing is that it’s straightforward, and if it has the potential to help a lot of women with breast cancer – even just a bit – then it’s worth doing."

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