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Dealing With Fear of Death and Breast Cancer

Ways to Cope and Overcome Fears


Updated August 15, 2009

"I may die of breast cancer," was the first thought that came to my mind when I was told my biopsy results. Even though I knew of one person who had survived breast cancer, I didn't know any recent statistics, so I assumed the worst for my case. Fear of death often arises at diagnosis of cancer, but you can cope with it. Educate yourself, ask your doctor questions, take some time to learn the facts. Although people do die from breast cancer, survival rates are on the rise.

Fear of Death - Get Your Facts Straight
Psychiatrists say there are primarily three death anxieties: fear of pain and suffering, fear of loneliness, and fear of the unknown. In a study done at McGill University, breast cancer patients with different coping styles were interviewed about their death-related fears. All patients had some anxiety about at least one aspect of death, but those who could not manage their emotions had the highest scores on all three anxieties.
Coping Tips: Keep a cool head and get the facts about your risk, diagnosis, and survival. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight women will be diagnosed with cancer of the breast during their lifetime. Even so, many more of us will survive. The American Cancer Society reports that 88.7% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive at least five years. But the survival rate is closely related to the stage - one reason you need to understand your diagnosis. Five-year relative survival rates of breast cancer in 2009 were 98.3% for well-contained early stage cancers such as DCIS, which can be credited to early detection and better treatments.

Know When To Get Help
Cancer has a way of making you feel that you are no longer in control of your life or your body. Sometimes your cancer journey feels like a long line of traumatic shocks. First you get bad news, and then sometimes you get more bad news. Coping is the way you use your thoughts and actions to adjust and to accept your diagnosis and the effects of treatment for cancer. When you develop ways to successfully cope with the ongoing challenges of cancer, you are able to remain active, participate in activities that are important to you, manage your schedule as well as your feelings, navigate treatment, and ask for support when you need it. Many breast cancer patients cope well with the stress of diagnosis and treatment. But if you are younger than average at diagnosis, have a history of depression or anxiety, or are going through extensive treatments, you may have more emotional distress and need some help.
Coping Tips: Take steps to identify and assess your distress: are you having problems with other people? Do you constantly feel hopeless and worthless? Is it hard to be active, concentrate, or sleep well? If you have more than a few symptoms of distress or anxiety, talk with a friend, a loved one, or your support group. Ask your doctor for help with depression symptoms, or get a referral to a counselor or mental health professional. Seek out spiritual counsel and ask for prayer, if that is important to you. Support, medication, and therapy are available to help you get back to your best self.

Stay The Course
If fears are getting you down, give yourself an emotional checkup. Take some time away from everything. Write out a list of your emotions. Beside each, note how you are coping. Then write how you want to deal with the emotion. Study this to see if any patterns emerge. Admit your fear of death and face up to how it may be distracting you from dealing with your cancer. If you still have trouble coping, seek help from other survivors or professional counselors. Educate yourself on the facts about survival. Make sure you understand your diagnosis. It's okay to have your feelings, including fear of death, but put yourself in charge of your cancer journey, and put fear in its place.


Anxiety Disorder (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute. Last Modified: 04/22/2009.

Cancer, Anxiety, and Fear. American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 08/26/2008

How patients with less-advanced and more-advanced cancer deal with three death-related fears: an exploratory study. Sigal JJ, Claude Ouimet M, Margolese R, Panarello L, Stibernik V, Bescec S. J Psychosoc Oncol. 2008; 26 (1): 53-68.

Normal Adjustment and Distress (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute. Last Modified: 07/14/2009.

Psychosocial Effects of Cancer; Psychosocial Factors Influencing the Impact of Cancer. Pages 276 - 278. Handbook of Psychology. Irving B. Weiner, (Editor-in-Chief). John Wiley, 2003.

SEER Stat Fact Sheets for Breast Cancer. National Cancer Institute. Updated for 2009.

Five-year Survival Rates for Breast Cancer

Five-year Relative Survival Rates* (%) by Stage at Diagnosis, 1996-2004
Site of Cancer All Stages Local Regional Distant
88.7 98.1 83.8 27.1
* Rates are adjusted for normal life expectancy and are based on cases diagnosed in the SEER 17 areas from 1996-2004, followed through 2005.

Table data published in American Cancer Society, Surveillance and Health Policy Research, 2009

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