What was (or would be) the first thoughts and emotions you would experience if a doctor ever looked you square in your eyes and said, “I’m sorry but you have breast cancer”?
For Mary, diagnosed when she was in her late 30s, her first thought was “no I don’t,” and of course her first words were, “am I going to die?” Those words continued to echo aimlessly through her mind as the doctor proceeded in the background somewhere to tell her about the specific something-or-others about her diagnosis, prognosis and next courses of action. Mary was terrified, at first for herself and then for her family, starting with her kids and even feeling sad at the thought of her dog missing her. Mary then felt denial and eventually a barrage of emotions came pouring out, starting with anger and disgust at the doctor (and at God) and then she collapsed as she poured her fears and frustrations and pain out in the doctor’s office.
Mary felt very alone at this moment, even though her husband was holding her hand and trying to tell her that everything would be fine. What Mary didn’t know, however, is that she wasn’t alone at all and neither are any of the 2.9 million female survivors and over 2,000 male survivors of breast cancer in the U.S. alone (Gemignani, 2013).
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, it is normal to feel the barrage of different emotions when receiving a serious diagnosis. Just keep in mind that no matter what you feel, you are normal and okay. Each woman will have a different emotional response to the news and no emotion is wrong. Regardless of what you feel, there are a few things that you can do to help smooth your journey just a bit, until you are able to find your peace.
The initial diagnostic phase may be the most stressful time for a woman with breast cancer. Experts suggest that when a person with cancer can speak with others about the illness, they can find some relief from the stress. While some women find it natural to turn to their spouses, relatives, or close friends, others may not have that option or may not feel comfortable talking with their closest people right away. There are numerous other sources out there in the world where a woman with breast cancer can find support, starting with her doctor.
Your regular family physician may be your best place to start out when searching for information to help you. If you have not done so already, make an appointment to see him or her as soon as possible. The following tips might help you during your initial appointments with your doctors:
- Do a little bit of research online or at your local library before you go to your first appointment, so you can have some basic background info on what to expect and know which questions you would like to ask
- Make a list of every single question you can think of in a research notepad. Hand the list to your doctor and keep one for yourself, in case your doctor feels like he or she should research some of your questions before answering
- Ask a loved one to come with you to your appointments and if you don’t feel like there is anyone available, call a local volunteer organization and see if there are any cancer volunteers to come with you
- Remember to breathe
Do Your Homework
Your doctor will not be able to answer every single question that you will have about breast cancer. New questions will invariably come up after your first appointment and will plague you until you do your own research to gather information. Suddenly, you may find yourself in a position where you will have to research, interpret, and absorb a great deal of new information about a topic you never really thought you would ever need.
At times, you might feel overwhelmed with all of the questions and answers available out there on the topic, but you will soon learn how to manage the new demands and to honor your own feelings and thoughts. Keep a small notepad on you at all times so that any time new questions arise you can immediately write them down and free your mind to move on to what you need to be doing.
Find out where the breast cancer sections are in your local libraries, bookstores, and online, and spend some time there familiarizing yourself with the resources, while writing down titles, location, and website URLs so you can return to them quickly.
Emotional Support Groups
Call your doctor, local church, and local hospitals to find out if and where there are breast cancer survivors' support groups. Many women have said that one of the best sources of support they received was from other breast cancer survivors. While each woman’s journey is uniquely her own, hearing from others who have beat and survived their breast cancer and subsequent treatments and maintained a positive outlook on life will be a crucial aid to your own recovery from the depression and grief that usually follows an initial diagnosis. Online support groups may also be helpful in addition to live groups as many people feel more comfortable talking about their more intimate details in an atmosphere where they can maintain their anonymity.
Mary Channels Hope
Mary had to find ways to let herself be more vulnerable than she ever had in her life. Before her diagnosis, she had been in peak health and was a champion competitive swimmer. Then her medical tests eventually revealed that she had Stage II malignant ductal carcinoma. She had to have a lumpectomy, 4 months of chemotherapy and 6 weeks of daily radiation treatments. Less than 3 weeks after her final chemo infusion, Mary swam across the English Channel and back in a record breaking 18 hours and 55 minutes. One year after learning how to rebuild her life after cancer, Mary is now living a normal life, only with the appreciation and hope that only a survivor can know.
Be a Proactive Advocate of Your Own Recovery
The level at which you wish to be involved in your treatment is ultimately up to you, but for many survivors of breast cancer, one of the most empowering things they did was to research their own treatment and adopt lifestyle changes that they believed would help them. Lifestyle changes may be as simple as eating more nutritious diets, meditating to remove excess stress, or simply (yet ironically difficult, for simple) changing their attitude from negative to positive.
American Cancer Society www.cancer.org
With over 2 million volunteer and over 3,000 local chapters, the ACS works endlessly to end cancer through prevention, saving lives, education, and advocacy.
Cancer Care, Inc. www.cancercare.org
This nonprofit organization began in 1994 to offer emotional support, information, practical help, and additional support to help people with all types of cancer and their loved ones find hope and live full lives after a diagnosis.
Braddock, S.W. (2007). Straight Talk About Breast Cancer. [Book]. Available from: Addicus Books Inc. Omaha, NE.
Gemignani, M.L. (2013). The Ultimate Guide to Breast Cancer. [Book]. Available from: Rodale Inc. New York, NY.