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Breast Cancer Awareness: The Connection To Mental Health

  • timeline Deepanwita Roy
  • 5 Min Read
  • Fact Checked

October is celebrated as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. with the primary motive being to spread awareness, and break the stigma related to breast cancer. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women, which accounts for 14% of cancers in Indian women. It is reported that with every four minutes, an Indian woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Although, one good thing is that at least one-third of common cancers are preventable; however, the lack of awareness, delay in early screening & detection and paucity of care available especially in rural India makes this even more relevant and important to celebrate a month dedicated to breast cancer.  

A cancer diagnosis most often comes as a devastating surprise to the patients as well as their caregivers, and families. This is no less for women with breast cancer – the emotional turmoil can affect their physical health as well as their emotional health. On top of that, the constant discomfort of having breast pain (in most cases) along with breast cancer treatment alone can be stressful, and traumatic. There is a surgical procedure, known as a mastectomy that removes the entire breasts; for women, the surgery comes with body image issues and affects their feminine identification to a greater extent.  

Common patient concerns and solutions

Body image issues

Breast Cancer Awareness

Studies have shown that women during and or after their treatment of breast cancer (worse if they have gone through mastectomy), experience body image issues which can be comparable to women without breast cancer. Two dimensions of body image issues have been described: affective and cognitive.
The affective dimension is associated with the feelings that a woman has about her own body.
– The cognitive dimension, on the other hand, includes thoughts and beliefs associated with her body. 

These two dimensions can have a certain degree of overlap, and mismatch between the two can lead to stress and behavioral change and depression in women with breast cancer. 

The patients and survivors of breast cancer should be encouraged to be a part of support groups to stay connected. Many times, patients feel that their spouses or caregivers fail to understand their feelings. In such situations, talking to someone who has gone through a similar phase in their lives could help them to overcome their loneliness associated with it. Often they might find it liberating to talk and share their experiences and their cancer can be a great resource to build awareness. The highlight should not just be to speak of coping mechanisms but to address the mistakes they made: not engaging in self-screening, avoiding regular mammograms and so on… 

Stress, anxiety and depression

Feeling overwhelmed is a perfectly normal response to a breast cancer diagnosis. For many women, the news leads to depression, which can make it more difficult for them to adjust, make the most of the treatment, and take advantage of whatever source of social support is available. Some women reach a state of pessimism where they refuse to undergo surgery or simply stop going to radiation or chemotherapy appointments. For many women, they experience difficulty in explaining their illness to their children or find it difficult to deal with their spouse’s response. For some, the struggle is to choose and decide on the right hospital and medical treatment. For others, it may be on how to control stress, anxiety and uncertainty associated with the entire treatment process.

Staying in touch with a mental health professional from the days of early detection to the treatment journey can help a great deal. The primary aim is to assist and support them in coping with the physical, emotional and lifestyle changes associated with cancer as well as with medical treatment that can be challenging and painful. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), mindfulness based interventions and supportive therapy are commonly used where their intrusive thoughts, the loop of overthinking is challenged, they are given options to deal with the discomfort, relaxation exercises such as breathing and progressive muscular relaxation exercises to relieve the pain associated with the treatment procedure.  

A combination of individual and group therapy works best for patients with breast cancer. Individual sessions typically emphasize the understanding and medication of patterns of thinking and behavior. Group psychological treatment with others who have breast cancer gives patients a  chance to give and receive emotional support and learn from the experiences of others. 

Emotional incongruence and difficulty dealing with negative emotions 

It is important to feel your feelings, you have every right to mourn your losses, you may keep wondering ‘why is it happening only with you?’ It’s okay to feel this way, but remember, you are more than your cancer. 

Be gentle with yourself. Look for ways to feel good inside and out. Avoid the “Be positive” trap: it is normal to have bad days. But if your anxieties, worries and fear are interfering with your day to day activities or sleep habits, it is important to acknowledge and address them without crying in silence or by suffering alone. 

You can work hands-on in learning problem-solving strategies in a safe-space and work through your grief, fear and other recurring emotions. The life-threatening crisis can even prove to be an opportunity for a life-enhancing personal growth. 

Physical symptoms and side effects to treatment

Breast Cancer Awareness

Nausea and vomiting often accompany chemotherapy. Learning relaxation activities such as deep breathing, and progressive muscular relaxation exercises, meditation, imagery techniques would effectively relieve nausea without the side effects of pharmaceutical approaches. 

The rigorous treatment often brings side effects such as, frequent mood swings, sleep disturbances and memory changes. The side effects coupled with hormonal changes can alter emotions. All of these feelings are normal but acknowledging & challenging your emotions whenever it is relevant would help to cope with the situation much better. 

Fear of Recurrence

Breast Cancer Awareness

Fear of recurrence (cancer coming back) is common and expected. Every ache and pain may cause you to think, ‘Is my cancer back?’ There are ways to ease your fears.

  • Accept your emotions. Talk about your fears with your healthcare provider, trusted friend or other survivors.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation. Awareness in the moment often helps reduce anxiety, stress and fear of recurrence.
  • Take control of your health. Stick to your doctor’s advice including what examinations you need in the future and how often you should do them.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Eat right, sleep well and get enough exercise. 
  • Join a support group for breast cancer survivors. Getting to know other cancer survivors will help you feel less alone as you learn how they are coping with the same worries.

Remember, you are not alone. Don’t be shy about seeking out mental health professionals for support. You won’t need it forever, but it can help during this time. Take care of yourself. You deserve it!

  • timeline
  • Written by

    Deepanwita Roy

Registered Clinical Psychologist

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