Breast Cancer and Mental Health
Every year during the month of October I write a blog for Chrysalis Center for Counseling regarding the importance of Breast Cancer Awareness. This topic is very important to me because I am one of the 1 in 8 U.S. women that will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime.
In 2012 at the age of 31 I sat across from my doctor and heard the words I would never forget “you have breast cancer”. The word Cancer carries so much weight in itself that it was hard for me, in that moment, to see beyond it. When I could finally process what was happening, I realized I had a choice, I could either curl up in a ball and fall fast into depression or I could pull myself together and make cancer wish it never knew me. I chose to pull myself together and fight and that is exactly what I did.
Breast Cancer totally changes your sense of “normal.” It may impact your ability to do your job, spend time with your loved ones, or go about your daily routine. And while the physical impacts of breast cancer and its treatments are well documented, the impacts on a patient’s mental health are just now being recognized and researched.
Because more and more breast cancer survivors are starting to speak up about their struggles with mental health issues, I felt compelled to honor their voices. Here’s what you need to know about breast cancer and mental health.
Diagnosis and Treatment Side Effects
Breast cancer can bring a mixture of emotions. The impact of a cancer diagnosis and ensuing treatment on a person’s mental health can be significant. A cancer diagnosis and treatment can lead to mood disorders (depression, worry, and anger), hopelessness, and changes in body esteem. Breast cancer treatment can bring side effects such as insomnia, memory changes and mood swings. Hormone level changes can influence your emotions, and weight gain can be discouraging. Some women self-blame while others feel punished. Studies show that most people diagnosed with breast cancer will subsequently develop symptoms of PTSD, and these symptoms tend to last longer than a year.
You may have heard about “chemo brain.” Chemo brain describes problems with thinking (cognition, memory, attention) that may occur as a result of receiving chemotherapy to treat cancer. These symptoms may affect patients during or after cancer treatments. Emotional and mental health problems that survivors may face can also contribute to difficulty with thinking and learning.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, a woman’s relationship with her body may change. While lifesaving, mastectomies can decrease a woman’s body confidence and have a negative effect on their overall mental health. For better or for worse, breasts are deeply tied to identity and self-esteem in American culture that for many women, losing one or both of their breasts is a lot to process mentally.
Fear of Recurrence
Fear of recurrence is common and expected after a cancer diagnosis. Any physical symptom, even a cough or minor pain, can trigger the fear of a cancer recurrence. It is important to always notify your doctor of any new concerning physical complaints. However, sometimes the fear or recurrence can be out of proportion to the physical complaint or thoughts become intrusive or distressing. Every ache and pain may cause you to think, “Is my cancer back?”
Your Emotions Matter
There are ways to help ease you or your loved one’s fears and anxieties after a cancer diagnosis.
- Accept your emotions. Talk about your feelings with a healthcare provider, licensed mental health professional, trusted friend, or other survivors.
- Practice mindfulness or meditation. Awareness in the moment often helps reduce anxiety, stress, and fear of recurrence.
- Take control of your health. Ask your doctor for a written follow-up care plan, including what exams you need in the future and how often you should have them.
- Recognize important indicators. Ask your doctor for a list of symptoms you should report to him/her in between check-ups.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. getting enough exercise, sleep and eating a healthy diet.
- Join a support group. Getting to know other cancer survivors will help you feel less alone as you learn how they are coping with the same worries.
- Feel your feelings You have a right to mourn your losses—but remember, you are more than your cancer. Be gentle with yourself. Look for ways to feel good inside and out. There are many options available to help you: prescription medication, counseling, acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques and physical therapy, among others.
- Avoid the “be positive” trap. It’s completely normal to have bad days. But, if you find that your anxieties, worries, or fears are interfering with your day-to-day activities or sleep habits, talk to your doctor.
Mental Health Resources
Cancer patients and survivors may feel like it’s more difficult to talk about mental health problems and struggles. It may be because family members or friends don’t talk about mental health, cultural beliefs don’t support having mental health discussions, or they feel that they should be “strong” or “brave” and keep it to themselves.
Anyone struggling with these issues should never feel embarrassed about seeking out mental health support. You won’t need it forever, but it can help during this time.
Here are some resources to help someone psychologically get through cancer.
- Caregiving (CDC)
- Feelings and Cancer (National Cancer Institute)
- Cancer Support Groups (National Cancer Institute)
- Memory or Concentration Problems and Cancer Treatment (National Cancer Institute)
- Caregivers and Family (American Cancer Society)
I can’t tell you that my breast cancer treatment and the days, months and years following my diagnosis were always easy, I had my share of bumps in the road and experienced my own mental health struggles. Finding the strength to finally reach out and ask for support was life changing for me and I look back now and wish I had done it earlier.
If anyone you know is experiencing mental health struggles after a cancer diagnosis and are afraid or ashamed to ask for help, please remind them it is ok to take care of themselves…they deserve it!