Here are some steps on how positive thinking can help you survive cancer!
How to cope emotionally after a breast cancer diagnosis
Apart from certain skin cancers, breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women of all races, with a lifetime risk in South Africa of 1 in 25. Interestingly, around 43% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump themselves, which highlights the need for regular self-checks and breast cancer screening.
Undergoing regular self-breast exams and having routine mammograms ensures you become familiar with how your breasts look and feel “normally”, so that you can be proactive if you notice any changes. While not all breast lumps indicate cancer, they should always be investigated.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do a self-check and what you should be looking out for: https://cansa.org.za/steps-how-to-do-a-breast-self-examination-bse/.
Dealing with breast cancer diagnosis
A breast cancer diagnosis will naturally come as a shock. While breast cancer treatment focuses on the body, it’s equally important to pay attention to your psychological response. Here are some insights to help navigate this difficult emotional time.
Jenna Skews, a breast cancer survivor and patient navigator at Breast Health Foundation, says that while the first reaction to a diagnosis is usually shock, everyone reacts differently. “There are different types of breast cancer and different treatments, and that, together with a person’s personal history, will affect how they react.”
Feelings of anxiety, depression and stress are very normal. Others could feel angry or scared. Remember that no feeling is wrong. “Your emotions, whatever they may be, are valid,” says Jenna.
The important thing she suggests, is to ‘feel’ them – avoiding your emotions could be a mistake. She makes the significant observation that mounting evidence shows that chronic stress is associated with worse treatment outcomes in breast cancer patients. Mortality rates are much higher in those with depressive symptoms.
Face your feelings
The positive insight is that dealing with your emotions can have the opposite effect. In one study, breast cancer patients who participated in psychologist-led support groups had a 45% lower risk of their cancer recurring, and a 56% lower risk of dying from breast cancer.
Your emotions also affect how you approach treatment, says Jenna. From the beginning of the journey, your emotions can affect your decisions about your treatment regime, as well as the side effects that you experience. So, whilst being diagnosed with cancer is out of your control, you can, however, control your reaction and emotions.
The best way to manage your emotions is to feel them during each stage of your journey and work through them. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a life-changing traumatic event, often involving five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some may experience only certain of these emotions, or not necessarily experience them in that specific order. Your emotions will change throughout treatment, and you may also experience a number of emotions at the same time.
For example, you could be thankful you’re alive and getting treatment and at the same time be angry that you got cancer. You could be grateful for your support system and sad about what you are losing through this journey.
Meanwhile, you could be fearful of what might happen. Facing these feelings is the only way through. As Bob Marley said, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” I think this is the case for many cancer warriors.
Jenna gives these tips for dealing with the emotional impact:
- Don’t hide your feelings: Don’t try to stay strong or act like everything is okay for the sake of others. Letting yourself feel your emotions will help you move through the stages of grief and find your “new normal”.
- Take things with a pinch of salt: When you do open up, some people won’t know what to say or can even say some hurtful things (‘Oh, at least you won’t have bad hair days now’ or ‘I read that sugar causes cancer; you shouldn’t eat sugar’). Remember that they’re mostly trying to help – don’t let such comments disturb your peace.
- Journal: Writing helps you process the emotions you are feeling.
- Speak up: You are allowed to tell those around you what support you feel you need. Your support system is trying to help you, so communicate what you need in a loving manner. For example, you might say, “Please treat me normally, not like a cancer patient.” “I’m having a bad day; please can I have a hug and a cup of tea?”, “I’m really not up to shopping for wigs now, but I would appreciate it if you drove me to my chemo appointment.”
- Join a support group: Sharing your journey with others who understand can be very helpful.
- Practise self-care: Be kind and look after yourself to build your reserves. Prioritise sleep, eat a balanced diet and get regular physical activity. Taking “me time”, like doing a guided meditation, will help calm a frantic mind.
Find support online
You don’t have to face breast cancer alone. Get advice and emotional support at these sites:
- Emotional impact of breast cancer: https://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/features/emotions-related-to-breast-cancer
- Dealing with emotions: https://breastcancernow.org/about-us/news-personal-stories/breast-cancer-changed-me-person