Grief, Loss, and Breast Cancer

Distressed Woman
Distressed Woman. Photo © Microsoft

Breast cancer can cause feelings of grief, loss, and guilt. Patients as well as caregivers and family members may go through emotions of anger, denial, and sadness. Your experience of grief will be unique to you, but it may have some elements in common with others who have had similar losses. All of us cope with grief and loss from breast cancer in our own time and most of us reach a resolution with our loss.

It may be helpful to understand the grieving process and know when to get help.

Grief And Loss:

Grief: distress or sorrow over loss or bereavement, which can affect emotional and physical health.

Whether we lose a breast or a family member or friend to breast cancer, we will pass through a time of grief. It is a natural emotional process through which we travel on the way to acceptance and resolution. There is no timetable for grief – your journey may take longer or shorter than mine – but everyone’s grief can resolve into acceptance and resolution. Although our modern Western culture makes little room for grief and doesn’t schedule time for mourning, it is best to give yourself some time to make this journey.

Anticipatory Grief:

Cancer may take many things from you: breast tissue, ovaries, fertility, a shapely figure. On facing the prospect of these losses, you may have anticipatory grief - a sneaky emotion that creeps up on you.

Before your surgery or your treatment sessions begin, you may feel shock and disbelief as you confront the treatments that are required. Don't worry - these feelings are natural - you most likely won't feel this way forever.

If you are a caregiver or supporter of someone with breast cancer, you may also feel anticipatory grief.

You may wonder if you are about to lose someone to breast cancer. This is a normal response to cancer.

Grieving By Stages:

There is no manual for grief and mourning. Many experts have studied and written about grief and there is no official program that you must go through to grieve and recover. Some researchers think there are five, seven, or even ten stages of grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross came up with a well-accepted set of stages that most of us can identify with. It is okay if your experience doesn't fit this pattern. Relationships and cultural expectations may shape different grief responses in all of us. Here are the basic stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Working Through Loss:

When you start to deal with the loss of a breast or of a loved one, you may at first feel numb. As reality sets in, you are confronted with the new reality that something important in your life is gone. Coping with this loss isn't an orderly process and people around you might not recognize your grief.

Your grief may come out in different ways - just take time with it and accept the feelings. This process may be expressed in ways such as:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sadness
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Fatigue and drowsiness
  • Confusion, distraction
  • Guilt
  • Self-blame
  • Envy
  • Depression

Acceptance and Resolution:

As your feelings make room for the loss, you can begin to accept what has happened. If you’ve lost a breast, you can accept it and decide how to cope with that loss. If you’ve lost a person and worked through the reality of their loss, you can start to approach acceptance of their absence. No matter which type of loss you are grieving, give yourself time to adjust, accept, and resolve your feelings as best you can. Life may never be the same, but you can move forward as you allow yourself to grieve the loss.

Getting Support And Help:

If you feel stuck in a cycle of grief and can’t move on, or depression enchains you, reach out for help. Patients and survivors may want to see a psycho-oncologist. This specialist treats the patient and their family in dealing with emotions relating to cancer and its treatment. You may ask a social worker at your clinic about counselors or therapists who work with cancer patients. Bereavement counselors can help the family and friends of those who have lost a loved one. See your spiritual adviser to help you work through grief and loss, and find a grief support group.

Sources: Grieving, mourning, and bereavement. American Cancer Society, Last Revised: 12/30/2010.

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