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Emotions and Breast Cancer

Emotions of the Patient
A diagnosis of breast cancer is a great shock. Women report that they fear breast cancer more than heart disease, even though they have a better chance of surviving breast cancer, and later dying of stroke or heart failure. Breast cancer has been with us since the early Egyptians, and fear of this disease as well as the treatments for it, seems to be inherent in women all across the world.    
Normal Emotions and Breast Cancer
Here are some normal emotions that you may experience at diagnosis and during treatment.

  • Fear and shock
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Guilt (self-blame)
  • Loneliness, alienation
  • Hope

Physical Responses to Strong Emotions
As you begin to deal with diagnosis and treatment, your body will be reacting to emotions as well as surgery and drugs. Your physical responses to the overall stress may be:

  • Fear- trouble sleeping, headaches, body aches
  • Anger - change in blood pressure
  • Depression - fatigue, crying, feeling moody
  • Stress- pain, irritability, physical tension

Unresolved or Unexpressed Emotions May Lead to Other Problems
You are not alone with your diagnosis - or your emotions. Expressing your feelings can give you quite a bit of relief, helping you move forward in your journey. Not all of us are freely expressive, but there are safe and creative outlets for your feelings. Letting out your emotions will help you get support and heal more quickly. Your bottled-up emotions may lead to:

  • Loneliness, withdrawal from others
  • Frustration
  • Hopelessness and despair
  • Feeling out of control

Emotional Concerns and Breast Cancer
When you've accepted your diagnosis, you may be facing other emotional concerns. The loss of a breast, or part of a breast, has an impact that goes beyond the physical fact. If aggressive treatment is required, it might have long-term impact on your health. It is normal to be concerned about:

  • Fear of recurrence
  • Loss of attractiveness
  • Difficulty with sexual function
  • Loss of fertility

Coping With and Surviving Breast Cancer
You can improve your emotional health and reduce your physical symptoms with good coping strategies. A study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology reports that women who get help with pain and emotional distress have lower levels of anxiety, fatigue and depression. Here are some ways to cope with your emotions:

  • Communicate with family and friends
  • Maintain intimacy (if you have a partner)
  • Visit with a counselor or spiritual director
  • Join a support group
  • Express your needs and ask for help
  • Report your symptoms to your healthcare team
  • Keep a log of medical visits, save test results, keep receipts
  • Educate yourself about your cancer and treatments
  • Exercise
  • Make plans for a crisis

Getting Help for Emotions Is Not a Sign of Weakness
You may feel under pressure to "be strong" or "act brave" when you least feel that way. Perhaps you don't easily share your feelings with others. You may be in a position of responsibility and trust, and feel like you must contain your fears and hide your disease or the effects of treatment. Sharing these feelings and struggles may make you feel vulnerable. A study published in the Journal of Personality shows that women with breast cancer who do express their anger, fear, sadness, and affection in a group setting live longer than women who suppress these emotions. Here are some ways to express your emotions and boost your emotional and physical health:

  • Make time to talk to family members, especially children
  • Communicate with friends and coworkers
  • Attend a support group, or join an online support forum
  • Find a good therapist and commit to regular visits

Take-Home Message
Your feelings about breast cancer and its affect on your body, family, relationships, finances, and mortality are valid and normal. Expressing your emotions and needs will help boost your mental and physical health. Letting it out lets you live longer!
The emotional turmoil that results can affect women's physical health as well as their psychological well-being.
There are fashion shows. There are walks, runs, ceremonies, benefits, pink ribbons and special luncheons. There is a month devoted to remembering. And everything pink is sold with the promise of an eventual cure.
Are they beneficial to aid the person who is going through breast cancer? Well, yes, I suppose, or else they would not exist. For one thing, they raise very necessary funds. For another, they tell the world that we exist.
But on a much more personal level is something so fundamental to the human spirit; something that sounds so simple but is, in fact, much more complicated than the word implies.

It is much more personal. It is communication and support.

If you're reading this and you've been through, or are going through, a diagnosis of breast cancer, I think you understand what I'm trying to say. And if you are reading this and have not experienced the overwhelming feelings that come with a diagnosis of breast cancer, chances are you know someone who has. And you want to help, but maybe don't know how.

I don't think I'm speaking only for myself when I say that I needed—and at times, craved—understanding from the outside world. I needed some reassurance that the other person understood, no matter how remotely, what I was faced with. And that need continues today, all these years later, because I know that I, for one, will never see the world in quite the same way as I did before my experience with breast cancer

But the problem is that people are not always prepared to help. I used to think that many people had a hard time communicating with me because I was relatively young when I was diagnosed. Because my friends, most of them in their 30s themselves, were not yet experienced enough with illness or hardship, I concluded that they couldn't possibly know what to say to me or do for me. And, thinking back, boy, did they make blunders!

Like the woman I knew from our children's nursery school who made an obvious and abrupt about-face when she spotted me coming down the grocery aisle and again, weeks

later, in the school parking lot. Or the cousin who phoned me a couple of days after I came home from the hospital and said, "I just went for my mammogram and thank goodness it was negative!" And how could I forget that call I got days after my surgery from another young mother who babbled on about what a shock it was to hear of my diagnosis because "We're all young—just like you..." Um, thanks for the reminder.

Sorry if I sound a bit peeved, but I was hurting. And what I now realize is that none of the hurt was intentional, but rather an attempt (however ill-fated) to say something— anything.

What I came to realize is that many people want to help but simply don't know how. That's why I spoke to dozens of breast cancer survivors to get their feedback on this crucial issue. While it's true that everyone is different—some women may want to talk while others prefer to keep to themselves—the common theme that came through was that just knowing someone out there cares is often comfort enough, and sometimes the perfect words are none at all.

One survivor offers this: "As far as what people can do to help when someone is diagnosed, my answer is, anything! Don't turn away. Some family/friends don't know what to do or say. They rationalize that they don't want to intrude, so they back away."

A person who is going through breast cancer is emotionally raw and frightened. She needs support at this time. If you turn away, she is being hurt twice—once, from the diagnosis and then again from your (implied) rejection.

Don't know what to say? Even a simple, "I don't know what to say," is better than ignoring the person outright. It is not a rejection, but rather, an admission of caring.

So, instead of letting fear of saying or doing the wrong thing make you do absolutely nothing at all, here's how you can help you help someone:

DON'T tell the person just diagnosed that you know a woman who just died, had a negative mammogram or recently had a scare. And don't tell her that you know just how she feels (unless you've also gone through a similar experience), because even though you may be the most empathetic person in the world, you can't possibly know.

DO admit that you might not know just what to say, but that you are here for her nonetheless. Let her know that you are willing to do anything she might need, even if it's just listening. (Another gesture that I'll never forget is what my former boss did for me the day I arrived home from the hospital. He traveled many miles through a bad snowstorm, pulled a chair up to my bedside, where I lay in a combination of shock and drug-induced haze, and sat, silently, for hours. No words were exchanged. In retrospect, no words could have helped as much as his quiet presence that day.)

DON'T label the person as though they are sick. Many women are so inundated with medical procedures, tests, etc., that they want to get back to "normal" as much as possible outside the doctor's office. One survivor told me, "I still see people who say, 'And HOW do YOU feel?' as if I'd just recovered from the the plague! Many survivors don't want to be thought of as having permanent patient status…I even had a friend who introduced me to someone as, 'My friend who has cancer.' I'd had my surgery and was moving on."

DO remember to ask the person about her life, her children, her activities—anything that gives her joy outside of what she is going through. Invite her out to lunch, to a funny movie, for a day of shopping—anything that will take her away from the medical and put her back into everyday life.

DON'T shy away by ignoring the facts of the disease. It's frightening. Plain and simple.

DO acknowledge the person's fear. After all, it's real and appropriate. It's OK to say, "You must be scared." Talk about the cancer with her (if that's what she wants). If you've just read something pertaining to the subject, ask first if she'd like you to share the information with her. Follow her lead. You'll be able to tell in no time what she needs by simply listening.

DON'T drop out of sight or stay away.

DO be there—any way you can. Stay in touch, even if it's just by notes or cards. While a phone call is nice, too, if you're not sure if the person feels like talking, a note or a card is unobtrusive yet caring. Or, make a donation to a cancer research organization in honor of her. It's a touching reminder that you're thinking about her.

And finally, remember this. Everyone needs different things. Try to take your lead from them. Sometimes just being there, listening and being supportive are the greatest gifts you can offer.

If you would like more information about how to best help a person who has been diagnosed with breast cancer here are some other sources:

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Emotions of Family & Friends
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