Breast Cancer Awareness Month is in October. One out of eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer. The number of women diagnosed with breast cancer is daunting, but as more people become aware of breast cancer symptoms, we can hope the number will decrease. Increased attention to breast cancer heightens people's awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease. Some campaigns explain how to examine your breasts. Throughout the month, media coverage of cancer stories shows strong and brave women. However, the standard of coping with a diagnosis of breast cancer skims over how many women handle their diagnosis.
A diagnosis of breast cancer throws most women into a spotlight they don't welcome. Once they tell people about their diagnosis, people say, "you're strong, you're a fighter, you'll be okay." The expectation of being a fighter and winning the battle diminishes the emotions a woman can experience during the initial diagnosis and treatment. Going through treatment is difficult. Many people don't see the struggle with nausea, extreme fatigue, and feeling like your bones and joints are disintegrating. People don't understand what it's like to have chunks of hair fall from your scalp or lose one or both breasts. Losing your hair and having a mastectomy are major life events and are traumatic for many women. Hair and breasts are associated with femininity; therefore, their loss can cause depression.
Mya, an active member of a breast cancer survivor group, explains her depression.
Mya discusses how she felt after her breast cancer diagnosis.
"When I found the lump, I knew what it meant. I tried to explain the lump away as a cyst of dense breast tissue, but I knew. I went for a mammogram, and the center asked me if I would stay and undergo a mammogram focused on two areas. They also wanted to do an ultrasound. I stayed. By the end of the day, I walked out of the center with my husband with the knowledge I could have breast cancer. My next step was a biopsy.
A week later, my ob/gyn called to let me know the biopsy came back. I had breast cancer. I hung up the phone and sat quietly for a moment. Being told you have cancer is a lot to absorb. My husband's face crumpled; I could see his pain. I cried, he cried, and we talked about what we thought would be best.
Slowly I began to tell people. I heard the familiar words people say when told the bad news. When my hair started falling out, people told me, "It's only, or it's just hair." My mastectomy brought about more words that hurt more than helped. With each step, I was expected to be strong – to fight. God forbid I should show my emotions.
When you are going through cancer treatment, you feel like a burden. I wanted to spare my husband from the full extent of my emotions. I found a therapist who understood the effects of cancer on my body and in my mind. My feelings of depression, anger, grief, and the sense of fatality were understood. I felt I could talk about everything.
No one tells you how you will feel during treatment. I know I wasn't feeling as strong as some women. My therapist helped me work through my failure because I wasn't like the women portrayed in the media. I learned my feelings were valid. Therapy changed how I viewed my emotional journey. I still go to treatment even though I finished active treatment. After treatment finishes, I think therapy is essential."
A diagnosis of breast cancer, or any cancer, can increase feelings of guilt. Guilt is associated with the sense of committing a specific behavior or a lack of action. Many cancer survivors discuss in groups their feelings of guilt that came with their diagnosis. Some survivors blame themselves for the diagnosis because they didn't notice anything abnormal or ignored cancer symptoms. In some cases, survivors experience excessive guilt. The symptoms of extreme guilt manifest in feelings of self-doubt, lack of self-esteem, or shame.
Kelly, an advocate for mental health support for cancer survivors, explained her feeling during treatment as "extreme guilt." She explains.
"I was stunned when I found out I had cancer. I watched what I ate, didn't drink too much, and exercised. How could I have cancer? Seriously, how could I? I blamed myself. I remembered I didn't always do my monthly self-exam. I scheduled my annual exam later than usual this year. This is my fault.
I beat myself up about everything I should have and could have done to avoid having cancer. Maybe I should have worked out more than I did or ate better. I felt my body betrayed me, or I betrayed my body. I obsessed over the signs and symptoms of different cancer websites. I didn't have any of them, but it was my responsibility to know I had something wrong. I couldn't talk with anyone about my feelings because everyone told me it wasn't my fault. They were wrong.
I finally broke down and made an appointment with a therapist. Talking with a therapist was the best thing I did during this whole nightmare. I no longer blamed myself and forgave myself for hating myself. That's powerful."
The urge to comfort a person after a diagnosis of cancer is logical. We want to help, but we often end up undermining the weight of someone's diagnosis. Instead of speaking, take time to sit and listen. Sometimes having a person listen is what a cancer patient needs.
Breast cancer can challenge how you feel about your body. Chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery alter how your body looks. Losing parts of your body you associate with being a woman, is often traumatic. Your feelings mixed with the effects of treatment can cause depression, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, and suicidal thoughts. Treatment of cancer is more than difficult; it is life-changing. People mean well when they use familiar words intended to comfort you, but those words can limit your willingness to share how you feel. You can also want to protect those around you from your thoughts. In some cases, you feel like you're a burden. Talking with a therapist is necessary to bring emotional healing. SokyaHealth understands the scars left behind after treatment are physical and emotional. We are available 24/7 to talk with you about any thoughts or emotions you have. We can help you set up an appointment with a therapist who would be the right fit for your needs. Call us at (866) 657-6592 for more information.