Breast Cancer Support
Diagnosis and treatment of Breast Cancer or inherited risk (e.g., BRCA1, BRCA2 gene mutations) can be stressful and challenging times. For many women (and their families) it is common and normal to experience a range of emotions including shock, fear, sadness, anger and guilt. Indeed, many women say that, from the time of initial diagnosis, through treatment and even post-treatment, they feel that they are on an emotional rollercoaster with the challenges and changes they face. It’s important to acknowledge that from that initial diagnosis, a process of adjustment and grieving begins as women experience loss, change and at times, isolation.
What impact does a breast cancer diagnosis have on psychological well-being?
Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer can be one of the most distressing events women ever experience. And women may not know where to turn for help.
Distress typically continues even after the initial shock of diagnosis has passed. As women begin what is often a lengthy treatment process, they may find themselves faced with new problems. They may find their personal relationships in turmoil, for instance. They may feel tired all the time. They may be very worried about their symptoms, treatment and mortality. . Factors like these can contribute to chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
How can psychological treatment help women adjust?
Their primary goal is to help women learn how to cope with the physical, emotional, and lifestyle changes associated with cancer as well as with medical treatments that can be painful and traumatic.
For some women, the focus may be on how to explain their illness to their children or how to deal with a partner's response. For others, it may be on how to choose the right hospital or medical treatment. For still others, it may be on how to control stress, anxiety or depression. Other issues that psychological support can assist with are coping with a sense of loss of control and independence, facing fear and uncertainty, and how to slow down and ask for help and support from others when they are used to being caregivers of others. By supporting women to develop or strengthen problem-solving and coping strategies in a supportive environment, psychologists help women work through their grief, fear and other emotions.
Breast cancer patients themselves aren't the only ones who can benefit from psychological treatment. Partners can also find that they feel distressed, confused, anxious, and uncertain about how to help. Psychologists can help spouses manage the challenge of offering both emotional and practical support while dealing with their own feelings. Children, parents and friends can also benefit from psychological interventions.
The need for psychological treatment may not end when medical treatment does. In fact, emotional recovery may take longer than physical recovery and is sometimes less predictable. Although societal pressure to get everything back to normal can be intense, breast cancer survivors need time to create a new self-image that incorporates both the experience and their changed bodies. Psychologists can help women achieve that goal and learn to cope with such issues as fears about recurrence, finding a 'new normal', and other adjustment issues.
Can psychological treatment help the body, too?
Absolutely. Take the nausea and vomiting that often accompany chemotherapy, for example. For some women, these side effects can be severe enough to make them reject further treatment efforts. Psychologists can teach women relaxation exercises, meditation, self-hypnosis, imagery or other skills that can help with these, as well as with anxiety that may be related to undergoing medical treatments.
Psychologists can also empower women to make more informed choices in the face of often-conflicting advice and can help them communicate more effectively with their health care providers. In short, psychologists can help women become more fully engaged in their own treatment. The result is an enhanced understanding of the disease and its treatment and a greater willingness to do what needs to be done to get well again.
© Copyright Dr. Kelly Kerrisk - Clinical Psychologist