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  • Writer's pictureSurviving Breast Cancer

Tips for Managing Mood Swings and Breast Cancer

By Kristen Carter

Dear Kristen,

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with moodiness? Between the stress of having breast cancer and the side effects of treatment, I get irritable so easily. I’ve even snapped at my daughter, who’s the most important person in my life! I’d love some ideas for staying calm.

First of all, give yourself some compassion for your irritable feelings; it’s no wonder you have them when the major stressors of cancer, surgery, radiation, and/or chemo are invading your life. Additionally, if you are pre-menopausal, chemotherapy and hormonal therapies can throw you into forced menopause causing a dramatic shift in your hormones. Acknowledging your emotions and being gentle with yourself for having them is sometimes enough to let a little light shine into your dark mood.

If you are looking for more recommendations beyond giving yourself grace, try one or more of the following strategies:

Ask Yourself, “Why?”

It might feel like it’s the slow cashier who’s causing your blood to boil, but in truth it might be the fact that you’re tired or nauseous or worried about tomorrow’s scan.

Try Smiling

When you smile, your brain releases tiny molecules called neuropeptides to help fight off stress. And a 2019 meta-analysis of 138 research studies showed that smiling makes people happier. Laughter can also be a great mood-changer; try TikTok, YouTube, favorite comedians, laughing yoga – anything to help crack open your negative mood.

Give Yourself a Time-Out

It works with young children and it can work for you, too – ask whoever you’re with to please excuse you, then go somewhere quiet and calming for a few minutes.

Get Some Perspective

This is one of my personal favorites: Imagine watching the scene you’re in from a different spot in the room, like above it all, floating next to the ceiling. This perspective gives me just enough space to see how temporary the situation really is and to calm down. Another trick: imagine standing behind the other person and seeing things from their point of view.

Belly Breathe

When we’re stressed, we tend to breathe in and out of our chest, which signals to the brain that we are under threat. Taking big, deep breaths in and out of your belly, on the other hand, tells your brain that you are safe and helps calm down your whole nervous system.

Surviving Breast Cancer offers several free programs to help get you breathing, including Zumba with Angela Rose, Restorative Yoga with Kate, and Group Meditation with Gloria.

Be Grateful

It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel gratitude and stress at the same time. So make a quick mental list of things you’re grateful for right at that moment, even if it’s as simple as “life is precious and every day is a miracle.”

If you try these and still blow your top, the best thing to do is apologize. You’ll probably wish you had behaved differently, so say so. Acknowledge what you said or did and the impact it had on the other person, say you’re sorry, and promise that you won’t let it happen again.

If you end up on the receiving end of someone else’s bad mood, forward this column with a note that says something like, “I love you and I know you’re going through a hard time, but I’m feeling stressed out by what you’re saying/doing. Here are some lovely ideas that might help.”

Advice From Others in the SBC Community

I really loved your question and wanted to garner perspective from what other people in our SBC community do and keep in their tool box when their emotions are wild. I turned to Laura, the Executive Director of SBC to ask her what her tactics are. Here’s what she shared:

“As a Scorpio, I love hard and I fight hard. Throw a cancer diagnosis on top of that and deplete my estrogen to zilch, you have complete chaos! Here are my go-tos:

  • Exercise. I am someone who has no time and I cannot always prioritize exercising 30 minutes a day, but I always try to get the heart pumping for a minimum of 10 minutes. If I break my day up into a few bursts of jumping jacks in between zoom calls, a brisk 110 minute walk with the pup at lunch, and then maybe some light weights at the stove while I am waiting for the water to boil for dinner, bam – somehow I reached my 30 minutes of exercise that day. Remember, it’s ok to break things up and exercise has been a great tool for me to release steam.

  • Similar to what you mentioned above about receiving other people’s bad energy, a friend told me about this visualization technique that I love to do to kick off my nighttime routine (this can also be done before walking into the house after a long day at work, before picking up your kids at school, etc). I take several deep breaths to ground myself and I literally wipe off the bad energy that clung itself to my body. Literally, I will go through the motions of wiping off my arms, my shoulders, and my legs. Bad vibes don’t always cling either. I take my hand in the form of scissors and literally cut away the strings of cobwebs around me, literally detaching myself from the negativity. Finally, I visualize the “crazy” float off of me and drift far far away.

  • Lastly, I want to break the stigma that seeing a psychiatrist is a bad and shameful thing that we need to keep secret. No, seeing a psychiatrist is to be rewarded! It means you are carving out time for you! It means you are engaging in self care. It means you are getting help and support! Having constant mood swings was impacting my day to day life. I was so sensitive at work, I would have to rush to the bathroom sometimes to burst into tears. Seeing a colleague's email pop up in my inbox gave me so much anxiety I couldn’t even open the message. My debilitating anger was unmanageable (after all, I was the vegan who got cancer!). After seeing a psychiatrist, I am on medication to help create balance. I am proud of this because it enables me to remain on my treatment regimen and for me, that was my priority.”

There is no one right way to manage emotions. I would love to hear from you as to what tools you keep in your back pocket when thoughts and feelings start to go rogue. Send me an email!

Wishing you peace,


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