Managing the Psychological Challenges of Breast Cancer from Treatment to Living Beyond
One of the most important parts of the recovery process is the challenge of dealing with the emotional and psychological toll of a breast cancer diagnosis or the diagnosis of any cancer for that matter. A diagnosis of breast cancer or cancer of any kind, is not only devastating to the patient, but to the entire family as well. First I’d like to say, to all those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer….I am so sorry you are having to endure this journey.
When I first heard those words…"you have breast cancer", the reality was almost too hard to grasp. Everyone who has heard those words, remember the exact date and time these words ….you have cancer…your life would be forever changed. I remember feeling disbelief, anger and a sense of betrayal as I felt I had led a healthy lifestyle and always watched my diet. I was angry at the world but mostly at the body that had betrayed me. My breasts which had nursed my two sons and been such a vital part of my femininity for 53 years, were suddenly the enemy. When a double mastectomy was the only way to win the battle, I felt a loss I hadn’t felt since losing my father twenty years since. Of course nothing can compare with the loss of a loved one, but this loss would be a deep one as well.
I remember also feeling lost. I needed to learn as much as I could about my disease and try to process the information so I regained my sense of control. Although I was fortunate to have the support of a wonderful husband and family, they could not understand the demons inside my head.
As a way to express my feelings, and process the diagnosis, I found it therapeutic to put my thoughts into written words. It was then I began to keep a journal. This not only helped organize my treatment, it helped me share my feelings with my counselor. And yes, I did seek counseling. Later, it was a tool to look back and revisit my thoughts and the factors that influenced the treatment decisions I had made. I could also use it to avoid events that triggered stress and work towards way to avoid them. Examples could be simple household tasks I simply did not have the energy to accomplish like cooking meals, cleaning the house or doing laundry. I could then ask my support team for help in these areas.
I have spoken to many patients who thought the emotional challenges would subside when treatment was completed. I also expected this to be the case, but it was not. While you are going through treatment, you have the support of a medical team. Once treatment is over, and you are left to “survive”, the expectation is to return to normal. The biggest question is what will be the new “normal”. You are now a cancer survivor but continue to live with the fear that it could, at any time, return, and thus your life can never be the same again. I did use stress reduction techniques like yoga, reiki and walking. These are discussed on my website and you can read more about them on my website blog.
In networking with other survivors, I have found that there are two possible paths post treatment. Some choose to want nothing to do with survivor groups or talk about their journey. Others, like myself, have a great need to talk to others, share stories and gain comfort from those “in the same boat”. The danger of course is losing friends to the disease when it’s hard to keep afloat yourself. It’s also a challenge in dealing with friends and family that think your treatment is over so you no longer need help. This is when you might need help the most. Women seem to deal easier with this than men. I don’t mean this as a judgement, it’s just that women like to share feelings where it may be more difficult for men to feel comfortable doing so.
The net result is that if you don’t get help or support, it can be a lonely time. Just know you are not alone. You may begin to question whether you may have done something to cause your diagnosis. This is a dangerous road. Don’t add guilt to your already overwhelming emotions. You have a right to be anxious that the disease may recur, angry that it happened in the first place, and overwhelmed at returning to everyday activities, but never blame yourself.
To conclude today’s session, let’s examine the word “survivor”. Does anyone ever really “survive” cancer? Let me share this definition of survivor:
"A survivor is someone who hasn't died: the word is used often about people who have been through a horrible experience, like a plane crash. Cancer survivors and Holocaust survivors have one thing in common: they lived through horrible ordeals and are still with us."
Yes, those of us who are still here are the lucky ones…but as one breast cancer advocate so appropriately stated, the only way you will know if you survived breast cancer is if you die of something else. I am grateful everyday that I am here and my wish is that somehow my efforts will help others. I prefer to refer to myself as “NED”, No Evidence of Disease” as I don’t want to tempt fate, and my prayer is to continue to be here for my family.
My wish for you is that you stay healthy as well.