Breast Cancer & Your Emotional Well-Being
by Linda Sutton, MD
The moment you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, your life is irrevocably changed. Regardless of your prognosis, you know that you will never again be someone who hasn’t had cancer. Some people find this burden overwhelming, particularly in the early days just after diagnosis. However, others are able to turn the experience around, growing and blossoming on their journey rather than being weighed down. What makes the difference?
In my years as an oncologist, I have been impressed by the strength cancer survivors find within themselves. It is a strength that evolves after they emerge from the initial shock of the diagnosis to realize that the huge, frightening burden of cancer can be broken down into a series of challenges they can actually work through. It’s empowering to take on one small challenge after another to get over a bigger hurdle, like getting through chemotherapy by breaking it down to each cycle or each treatment.
Acknowledge Your Emotions
Fundamentally, it’s important to acknowledge the fear, sadness, and grief a breast cancer diagnosis can cause for both yourself and your loved ones. Intermittent sadness and anxiety is natural and to be expected. If you don’t acknowledge these feelings when they arise, your initial normal fear and grief can morph into anxiety and depression that is hard to overcome. Talking about your experience with family or friends, support group members, or professional counselors can corral your fears and help you develop creative solutions to every challenge you face. There is truth in the age-old adage that two (or more) heads are better than one.
Knowing that you are not alone as a woman with breast cancer is vital to your emotional well-being.
Knowing that you are not alone as a woman with breast cancer is vital to your emotional well-being. Even if your circumstances have limited the involvement of family or friends in your life, you can still gain a network of support at your treatment center, in your community, and even around the world through the Internet. There are many resources for cancer survivors, often at no cost. Most treatment centers offer support programs that include not only terrific educational and emotional support groups for cancer survivors but also financial counseling and support programs for their families.
Write It Down
For some breast cancer survivors, keeping a journal of their cancer experience can provide a safe place to deposit their fears, worries, and concerns and acknowledge their successes in writing. My high school English teacher would say to us, “If you keep a journal, you will never need a psychiatrist.” I’m not sure he was completely right about that, but I do think he was on to something. The cancer survivors I work with who tell me about their journals usually do seem better organized and focused on moving forward.
One aspect of emotional health that is often overlooked is the role of physical activity. Getting up and engaging in some exercise – whether it’s stretching, yoga, walking, or training for a triathlon – can increase your sense of well-being by releasing feel-good chemicals in your brain. Engaging in moderate exercise provides additional potential benefits for breast cancer survivors, such as decreased risk of recurrence of and death from breast cancer. Before getting started, talk with your doctor about what might be the best exercise program for you. Don’t hesitate to ask for referral or recommendations for facilities in your area that might have programs specifically designed for cancer survivors.
Consider doing something positive with your breast cancer diagnosis. It takes some time to reestablish your emotional well-being, but once you have found your path, helping other women with breast cancer allows your emotional wellness to soar. Some breast cancer survivors have gone on to work as volunteers in their treatment centers or local hospitals. Some have developed cancer support programs in their hospitals where none existed previously, and others have even gone on to build national support programs. Find what ignites your passion, and go for it.
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.