I thought of my breast cancer diagnosis as a death sentence - my mother-in-law had died of breast cancer, an aunt had died of a brain tumor, and a boy I knew in high school had died of aggressive leukemia. I could not say the words, "I have breast cancer," even after I had been through a lumpectomy and consulted a medical oncologist. Just having a diagnosis of breast cancer gave me emotional tunnel vision, not to mention depression. I was just 46 and instead of enjoying life, I was in the grip of fear.Find Your Coping Style
Psychologists have studied different coping styles among cancer patients. They have found that some coping styles can actually help you get through the trauma of cancer and its effect on how well your body, emotions, and relationships function. Here's how some styles can affect your experience of cancer.
- Avoidance and Denial: Although this can be a way to escape the threat that cancer is posing to you, in the long term your emotional distress may be worse than if you accept your situation and express your emotions about your predicament. Researchers found that patients who were better at avoidance than acceptance had a harder time adapting to the effects of cancer and treatment, and had higher levels of anxiety and depression. They also had more physical problems related to their cancer.
- Fighting Spirit and Optimism: If you have a confrontational coping style you may quickly accept your cancer diagnosis, have low levels of anxiety, be able to use humor as a coping tool, and have the gift of putting your own positive spin on the overall cancer experience. Patients with this coping style got past the shock of diagnosis quickly, expected and got support from those around them, and had lower stress levels than passive or pessimistic patients.
- Problem Solving: Perhaps you usually approach a challenge by attempting to solve the problem. You may feel that you can participate in your own treatment process, rather than being a passive patient. This can give you a feeling of engagement and control, and leads to relatively quick acceptance of your diagnosis. You may have less emotional distress than someone who is in denial, and adjust quickly to your treatment schedule, having relatively low levels of stress and depression.
Fear, anxiety, and depression are common emotions associated with a diagnosis of breast cancer, but not everybody is overcome by these feelings. Your life experience up to this point may, or may not, have prepared you to deal with a major health challenge like cancer. You may be saying, "Why me?" or you may be blaming yourself for not doing more prevention. Perhaps you're worried about the cost of treatment, the impact of your illness on your loved ones, and whether or not you can keep your job.
Coping Tips: Whatever feelings you have at first, don't feel pressured to "be strong" or take immediate action. Don't live up to someone else's idea of the proper patient - this is the time to be the real you! Recognize your feelings as a genuine part of you, and give yourself time to process those feelings. Keep a journal, create a work of art, put on some music, or head for the punching bag in the gym - express your feelings, deal with them, and move on.
Take a Break From Cancerville
No matter how much you might like to think about something else, news about breast cancer is hard to avoid: the latest statistics, new treatments, headlines about the latest celebrity who was diagnosed - reminders are all around you. Your body starts responding to treatment as you experience hair loss, weight changes, surgical scars, sleep loss, ongoing fatigue, and a diminishing libido. Sometimes you may feel more like a walking science experiment than a person.
Coping Tips: Give your mind and emotions a break from breast cancer. Turn off your television and read a good book. Schedule time for yourself to relax and do something enjoyable. Do some mild exercise - even taking a walk can lift your mood and help with insomnia. Visit a beautiful garden or greenhouse and drink in the colors and fragrances. Work on cultivating intimacy with your partner. Try meditation, guided imagery, yoga, or Tai Chi - all of which can help you concentrate on healing and lowering stress levels.
Although I started out in avoidance and denial, I made an effort to change my coping style. After all, avoidance of doctors had caused me to delay getting a mammogram, which turned out to have been a bad move when I finally got my diagnosis of cancer. I pushed myself into more of a problem-solving mode, and when that gave me some emotional distance from the cancer itself, I coped better. If you can identify your coping style, then you may be able to accept your diagnosis and treatment, manage your fears, get the facts about your health problems, and have a smoother road on your cancer journey.
Anxiety Disorder (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute. Last Modified: 04/22/2009.
Cancer, Anxiety, and Fear. American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 08/26/2008
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.