The Feelings That Come With Breast Cancer

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From diagnosis to the end of active treatment, breast cancer can be a roller-coaster ride of feelings on any given day. Many of the feelings of intense fear and anger are brand new and uncomfortable. Other feelings dredge up old insecurities about self-image and self-worth.

It is perfectly normal to have all kinds of feelings when you first learn you have breast cancer, and during the months of active treatment that follow.

Feelings of fear subside for most of us, but don’t go away entirely after active treatment ends. What remains is the often unspoken fear of recurrence.

Don’t judge yourself. Feelings aren’t right or wrong; they are just feelings. Breast cancer is a potentially life-threatening illness and as such; it is bound to set off feelings, some of which; we are not comfortable having; feelings we have been told since childhood are not “nice” to have.

Many of us who have gotten a diagnosis of breast cancer experience feelings that include:

  • Fear is the initial and the most constant feeling throughout the breast cancer experience. It is a response to being diagnosed with breast cancer, which we all recognize as a life-threatening disease. We fear treatment and how we will handle it and its side effects. We fear disfigurement, loss of femininity, loss of hair, loss of attention from a spouse or significant other. We fear being unable to take care of our children, work, and family responsibilities. Many fear the economic fallout of treatment costs and loss of time from work. When active treatment is over, we fear having a recurrence.
  • Anger can be white hot at times, or a constant smoldering that we have to fight to keep under control. We are angry for many of the same reasons we are afraid: having breast cancer; changes in self-image; changes in body image; loss of self-confidence; time lost from work; personal and family activities missed due to treatment and side effects; having to learn to manage fears of recurrence, and the disappointment of some family and friends being emotionally unavailable.
  • Mourning: we grieve for the losses that breast cancer brings. We mourn the loss of not feeling in control of our health. We mourn the loss of a breast(s), our hair, our self-image, body image, confidence, and peace of mind.
  • Confusion: We feel confused about how are we going to fit treatment into our already busy lives. How do we tell our families and friends, especially our children, as well as employers?
  • Guilt covers a host of issues: Did we give ourselves breast cancer by being overweight? Do we have breast cancer because we smoke, drink, or have a poor diet? If we have a genetic mutation, are we passing it on to our children? Is cancer a punishment for something we did or didn't do? Are we letting our spouse or family down, causing economic hardship? Are we a burden?
  • Jealousy can be a strong feeling, at times, throughout our treatment and beyond. For some, it is hard not to be jealous of the good health of others; their ability to enjoy life; their freedom from fear and pain, and changes to their self-image.
  • Impatience flares up, and we often have little tolerance for the concerns and worries of others that seem small and insignificant compared to what we are going through.

These feelings can be overwhelming right after diagnosis. It may help to talk to a trusted friend, spouse or family member; a person who is not judgmental and a good listener.

If you feel well enough during treatment, a support group that puts you in touch with others who are going through much of what you are going through can be very helpful. It cuts down on the feelings of isolation that often come with cancer.  A support group gives you the opportunity to speak with others who understand what you are feeling without it having to be explained to them.

The shared experiences of members of the group can be reassuring; learning from each other is the biggest benefit, especially when it comes to living in today and handling the feelings that cancer brings.

If you don’t feel up to going to a support group, the American Cancer Society has a program called Reach to Recovery. This program recruits and trains survivors who are out of treatment and getting on with life, to call and be a support to those newly diagnosed with breast cancer. To learn more or sign up for the program, call your local office of the American Cancer Society.

Community breast cancer organizations may run on-line support services as well as on-site support groups. The American Cancer Society regional offices usually can refer you to these organizations in your area.

Whether you go to a support group, participate in an on-line group, or in breast cancer chat rooms, remember to identify with what is being said, but don’t compare. Each of as has our own individual responses to treatment and to the feelings that accompany having breast cancer.

What is most important…reach out for help. Going through breast cancer treatment is tough enough without trying to go it alone.

Jean Campbell is a 2x breast cancer survivor and the former founding director of the American Cancer Society New York City Patient Navigator Program in 14 public and private hospitals.She is executive director of No Boobs About It, a nonprofit organization providing research and resource information and support to women and men newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She blogs at noboobsaboutit.org.

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