The emotional battles of breast cancer

*Note: The patient requested to remain anonymous. Andrea is a pseudonym.

There is no good time to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness such as breast cancer, but receiving the diagnosis a few days before Christmas was a difficult start to a challenging journey for Andrea. Fresh off an overseas trip and preparing to spend time with her loved ones for the festive season, she received the news from the radiologist that she might have a cancerous lump in one of her breasts. It took six biopsies to confirm the diagnosis. To complicate matters further, Andrea had to undergo a breast MRI to rule out the possibility of multifocality - meaning more than one tumour within the breast.

Andrea’s story

“Looking back on my two months of hell, I am deeply thankful for Dr Dedekind’s role in the whole process. She made the brave decision not to do a mastectomy, but rather a lumpectomy (the clinical term for the procedure is “wide local excision”). From the first moment I met her, she was calm, factual, well prepared and highly informative. My post-operative recovery also went really well. She did a wonderful job with the incisions. I have literally no scars. My breasts are still beautiful!”

Your emotions and breast cancer

Andrea’s experience was profoundly negative, and it was made even more difficult because she received her diagnosis just before Christmas. From the first visit to the doctor to receiving the good news that she did not have to undergo chemotherapy but only radiation, took almost two months. During this time she experienced negative feelings such as loneliness like never before. As a retired nurse, Andrea understands the ins and outs of such a journey very well, but it shows that a breast cancer diagnosis can raise all kinds of emotions such as fear, loneliness, and a sense of being overwhelmed.

It is common knowledge that cancer will cause a wide range of feelings that people are not used to dealing with and will make existing feelings seem more intense. This resonates with Andrea’s experience. She never thought about herself as a person prone to depression and loneliness. The journey from being diagnosed with a cancerous lump to post-operative radiation revealed a range of emotions that she had never experienced before.

How to cope with your emotions

Acknowledge your feelings

Emotions are part of what it means to be human. When you express them in a healthy way, you can let go of the more painful and negative ones. Some patients have found it extremely helpful to talk about their feelings with friends, family, other cancer survivors, a support group, or a counsellor. Others have found that keeping a journal is a helpful way to give words to emotions that would previously go unmentioned. A mindfulness exercise such as meditation can also be helpful to acknowledge the emotions that you are going through.  

Equip yourself with the right information

Many patients feel as if they have lost ownership of their bodies. Before you know it, you can be a passenger of a process over which you have no insight or control. This can lead to increased anxiety and depression.

Andrea was able to get a grip on her negative emotions by relying on her medical knowledge and experience as a retired ICU nurse.

  • When she learnt that she had to undergo a breast MRI, she could balance the weight of that uncertainty with what she knew about her condition and how the process works.

  • She also knew when to let go and trust the advice and decisions of the medical personnel responsible for her surgery and treatment.

  • She knew the difference between a mastectomy and wide local excision. In her case, a mastectomy would have been unnecessary, and Dr Dedekind advised the less invasive procedure.

Be kind to yourself

Being diagnosed with cancer can lead to a range of negative emotions about your body, your self-worth and the life choices that led you to this point. Avoid being hard on yourself and practise self-care and self-compassion. According to psychologist Alice Boyes, self-care helps us have enough emotional reserves available for dealing with psychological stress. Self-compassion is simply about acknowledging that emotional pain is a universal human experience, and you're doing your absolute best to cope.

Look at what you can control

Being involved in your health care, keeping your appointments, and making changes in your lifestyle are among the things you can control. Even setting a daily schedule can give you a sense of control. At the beginning of Andrea’s journey, she felt out of control and totally in the hands of other people’s expert opinions. By taking control of the things she knew she could control, she gained a sense of ownership and it helped her to deal with her negative emotions.

Britta Dedekind