More Than Physical: Addressing The Psychological Impact Of Breast Cancer

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One of the most serious misconceptions about breast cancer, like many other health conditions, is that it is a strictly physical illness. Yes, breast cancer is a disease of the body, but the fact is that receiving such a diagnosis and undergoing treatment – facing your own mortality – are extremely stressful things. As a result, many cancer patients experience anxiety and depression, even when treatments go well, and these feelings can make the diagnosis much harder to deal with. Luckily, breast cancer patients don’t have to suffer in silence.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer, these 7 strategies can all help reduce stress and anxiety and make the treatment process more manageable. Don’t let disease get you down when you have the ability to take back control.

Talk About It

One of the most effective ways to manage anxiety is by talking about it, but when it comes to cancer-related fears, you shouldn’t talk to just anyone. Many breast cancer patients find that they get the most benefit from finding community among other patients. “Cancer friends” understand what you’re going through in ways friends and family who haven’t experienced this disease can’t and are often more comfortable talking about treatment, prognosis, and other sensitive topics.

Tackle “Scanxiety”

Many people experience some anxiety around healthcare. They may avoid going to the doctor and feel particular fear around certain tests. Once you’ve received bad news, though, testing anxiety can become even more acute, manifesting as what some breast cancer patients refer to as “scanxiety” – anxiety focused on diagnostic and monitoring tests. It’s important that you don’t let scanxiety keep you from getting the medical care you need.

Women who are at a higher risk of breast cancer due to family history, genetic mutations, aging, or certain lifestyle conditions may be more prone to anxiety; this is due to heightened awareness of what can happen if you are diagnosed with cancer. Bringing a friend or family member with you when you need tests or learning grounding practices like deep breathing can help you get through tests without panicking, as can reciting a mantra or listening to your favorite music.

Get Grounded

One of the best ways to deal with anxiety, especially during periods of acute stress, is by practicing grounding techniques. Unlike more traditional meditation, grounding helps you move away from feelings of anxiety by engaging the senses. Simple ways to ground yourself include running cold water over your hands or holding a piece of ice, identifying things that you hear in your surroundings, or focusing on the flavors and sensations of something you’re eating or drinking, like a piece of chocolate or a cup of coffee. You might also consider spraying a favorite perfume or essential oil on your wrist and smelling it when you feel nervous.

Identify Moments Of Transition

Anxiety is often associated with major life changes, which is why a cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling off-center. That’s perfectly normal, but it’s also important to recognize that changes in the course of your treatment – and even remission – can impact your anxiety levels, as well.

If you’re feeling anxious, it’s important to determine whether you have just undergone or are coming up on a major transition. We need different coping skills to address changes in our life situations, including different narratives about who you are and what your life is like. A therapist can help you establish new ways of thinking, build new skills, and adjust to major changes; journaling can also help you navigate your feelings about your health.

Express Yourself

Many people find that creative self-expression, from dancing to drawing and painting, to be a valuable outlet for anxiety, but it’s easy to forget about these activities when you’re tired from chemotherapy or recovering from surgery. Luckily, your treatment center may be able to connect you with an art therapy group where you have access to supplies and guidance. It’s also important to remember that art therapy isn’t about the end product – you don’t need to create a museum-worthy piece, you just need to find alternative pathways to acceptance and understanding.

Take Control Of Your Body

Undergoing treatment for breast cancer can make your body feel foreign or like it’s not yours, and you’re not alone in that experience. This can be distressing, and may only get worse as your body continues to change due to medication, surgery, and other interventions, but there are still ways you can take back control. One way to do that is by practicing a gentle form of yoga – check with your doctor to see if you have any movement restrictions. If you’re medically cleared, which most breast cancer patients are, yoga can offer a combination of grounding, meditation, and movement that you may find help reconnect you with your body.

Another way to feel more centered and calmer in your body is by engaging in biofeedback. That’s because biofeedback can help you control your body’s responses, such as by lowering heart rate and blood pressure and inducing a feeling of calm. It can also help you manage pain related to cancer treatment when used alongside conventional pain management strategies.

Medication Can Help

Most breast cancer patients experience relatively manageable anxiety and depression and can recognize its relationship to their current circumstances. Some, however, can benefit from targeted psycho-oncology interventions: treatments, including medication and education, specifically for anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In combination with traditional therapy, medication can also help breast cancer patients deal with body image issues, fear of recurrence, and other concerns.

There’s no single right way to deal with anxiety related to your breast cancer diagnosis. Some find comfort in family and friends, others in religion, and some in meditation. What matters most, though, is finding a strategy that helps you face your condition and keep going. While it’s normal to feel nervous or sad about having breast cancer, these feelings don’t have to overwhelm you. By seeking help for your anxiety, you can open the door to hope.

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