Breast cancer isn’t just a physical condition. For many, it’s an emotional and psychological experience that can profoundly affect your mental health and the lives of your family and friends. Understanding the common psychological reactions and implementing positive coping strategies can help those with breast cancer better manage their mental health during treatment and recovery. Continue reading to delve into the mental and emotional repercussions of breast cancer and viable strategies to cope.
Common Psychological Effects of Breast Cancer
Shock and Denial
The initial news of a breast cancer diagnosis often leads to feelings of shock, disbelief, and denial. It’s not uncommon to have difficulty absorbing or accepting the reality of the diagnosis at first. It’s a natural defense mechanism, but over time, accepting the reality of the situation is crucial for treatment and emotional healing.
Fear and Anxiety
As the reality sets in, breast cancer patients frequently struggle with intense fear and anxiety. The uncertainty surrounding diagnosis and prognosis — pain, side effects, the fear of the cancer metastasizing, and the possibility of recurrence — can foster anxiety.
Some breast cancer patients experience feelings of anger at their diagnosis. Anger can arise from the seeming randomness or unfairness of a cancer diagnosis. You may direct anger at your doctors or loved ones. A professional therapist can help you express your anger in healthy ways to avoid directing it inward.
Sadness and Depression
Breast cancer patients are at an increased risk of experiencing sadness and depression compared to the general population. Causes include hormonal factors from cancer treatments, stress, grief over the potential alterations in body image and lifestyle, and the trauma of the diagnosis.
Another consequence many people with breast cancer face is social isolation due to withdrawal from their social circles, which may be caused by physical discomfort or medical vulnerability, like being immunocompromised. Some patients avoid social activities and interaction during treatment. Finding social support is essential to counter these feelings.
Known as “chemo brain,” some patients experience memory problems or trouble concentrating during or after chemotherapy. This phenomenon can be extremely frustrating, particularly if someone has never experienced memory problems.
Healthy Coping Strategies
Positive coping techniques as you face breast cancer can help you manage the range of psychological impacts and improve your mental health. Consider the following helpful strategies:
Develop a Strong Support Network
Building a robust support network, including friends, family, and support groups, can provide a buffer against social isolation. Support groups offer a safe space where you can share your experiences and gain insights from others who have faced similar challenges.
SurvivingBreastCancer.org has private online groups to ensure you’re never alone. Instead, you’re surrounded by others who have similar experiences. We also offer several peer-to-peer online meetups including all stages and types of breast cancer, metastatic breast cancer (MBC), inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), and a Spanish-language meetup.
Engage in Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques
Practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, like meditation and yoga, can be instrumental in reducing anxiety and depression. These strategies promote a sense of calm and help individuals remain grounded during turbulent times.
Understanding the disease and your treatment options can provide a sense of control. Always consult with your healthcare professional for personalized advice. Don’t hesitate to ask questions when you don’t understand something or want more information.
Exercise has numerous benefits for cancer survivors, including improving physical function, reducing fatigue, and reducing the risk of cancer recurrence. First, talk with your care team before starting a fitness routine. Then, if you feel up to exercising and your team approves, you can work out during treatment. Begin with slow movement — walking, yoga, or stretching — and listen to your body to set the pace.
Communicate With Loved Ones
Sharing fears, concerns, and hopes with friends and family can provide emotional relief and strengthen bonds during challenging times. Friends and family who share a history and emotional bond with you can provide support grounded in empathy, familiarity, and deep-seated understanding, fostering a sense of solidarity and alleviating isolation.
While having the support of loved ones is always valuable, sometimes a therapist, professionally trained to guide you through traumatic experiences, can provide structured and objective support to help you navigate complex emotions and develop coping strategies.
Striking a balance between both avenues of support can create a harmonized support system, integrating the professional insights from therapy with the comforting embrace of family and friends.
Seek Professional Help
Seeking the assistance of mental health professionals can be a pivotal step in managing the psychological repercussions of breast cancer. Psycho-oncology, a field at the intersection of psychiatry and oncology, is dedicated to addressing these issues. You may find it helpful to meet with a therapist or counselor specializing in oncology. Also consider mental health professionals and support groups for other specific challenges, including struggles with body image or changes to your professional life.
Accept Change and Live in the Present
Dealing with breast cancer can bring a wave of negative emotions and fear. It’s important to recognize these feelings rather than suppressing them. Allow yourself time to process your emotions. Accept that your feelings and reactions are valid and give yourself permission to feel them.
Although adjusting your expectations and focusing on the positives can help you feel more hopeful, it may be challenging to remain consistently positive. Dwelling on the future causes unnecessary worry. Focusing on each day can help you get through treatment.
Continuing enjoyable activities provides a sense of normalcy and distraction from cancer. SurvivingBreastCancer.org offers 100% free online activities including writing workshops, art therapy, poetry readings, forest bathing, a book club, and more.
Count On Us for Information, Resources, and Support
The psychological impact of breast cancer diagnosis can be as significant as the physical challenges. Recognizing the emotional effects and adopting strategies for coping is essential for comprehensive healing and wellness.
Whether you’re newly diagnosed with breast cancer, are navigating survivorship, or are the loved one of someone experiencing breast cancer, you can count on SurvivingBreastCancer.org to keep you informed. We provide educational information to help you better understand symptoms, testing, treatment options, surgery, etc., and podcasts that feature professionals, advocates, and caregivers who share valuable information.
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Note: This article is designed to provide general information and is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Always discuss your options with your healthcare provider.
On the Podcast: Breast Cancer Conversations
How to Get a Grip: Coping Strategies for Complicated Times with Dr. David Bullis
SurvivingBreastCancer.org Resources & Support: