Maybe it was an annual mammogram; maybe you found a lump or experienced pain in your breast. Whatever it was that got you started on this journey with breast cancer, it is important to recognize that you travel the path as a whole person. That means breast cancer affects you emotionally and physically. My understanding of this topic does not come just from my training as a psychotherapist, but as a breast cancer patient. So, let’s explore some ways to strengthen your emotional health as you go through this experience.
It is important to have an emotional survival plan in place as early in the treatment process as possible. To create your plan, identify three to five people in your life who are emotionally safe, supportive, and able to be available to you during treatment. Invite them to be a part of your support team and share what you are asking of them. Be clear if you are asking for emotional support or you need something more tangible like rides to chemo or prepared meals. If you do not have loved ones nearby, ask for a referral to a cancer support network that may be able to help you. If you are used to being independent, asking for help may be a difficult task. But it absolutely crucial.
The second step in creating a plan is to identify your healthy coping skills. Make a list of five coping skills that are feasible for you during treatment. My coping skills were attached to being an athlete before my cancer diagnosis. I had to learn to widen my list, which then included listening to audio books that inspired me, meditation, listening to spa music on Pandora, and writing. That way I had coping skills for the days I did not feel well. Why write down these coping skills? Because the days you need them most are probably the days you will not be able to recall them. Having a list to refer to will be infinitely helpful.
The third step is to define a goal or a theme for your period of treatment that transcends the physical aspects of the disease. This can give a purpose or meaning to your time in treatment. I had 52 chemo treatments, one every week for a year. I felt so overwhelmed that I decided to call it The Year of the Inside Work. I focused my attention on what I could learn about myself, others, life, and the world with cancer as my teacher. I worked on being a better person, mother, partner, and friend. This theme allowed me to focus on something bigger than the cancer or my treatment.
Another step is to identify ways you can take care of yourself. List four or five things that could increase your self-care. This could include anything from having meals delivered to asking someone from your faith community to visit you to adjusting your exercise routine. It can be little or big. For example, I was diagnosed in the autumn, which meant I had Christmas shopping to do for my loved ones. To do good self-care, I ordered all the gifts and gift bags online. This allowed me to still choose gifts for the important people in my life without the physical drain on my energy. Get creative!
Embrace your own emotions from a place of self-compassion. Many celebrities portray their journey with cancer in a positive light and that’s great. There are many life lessons to be taught by cancer. But cancer has its dark days too; those days where gratitude for being alive has faded and you feel worn out and discouraged. Acknowledge those emotions and know that they will pass. I guarantee nothing will be accomplished by beating yourself up for not having a positive attitude. In fact, research shows that shaming yourself is more destructive than constructive to the healing process.
Accepting your own emotions may be difficult if the people in your life need you to be positive because they don’t know how to deal with the raw emotions that come from cancer. You may feel pressure to invalidate your own feelings to ease a loved one’s emotional discomfort. It is important to remind yourself that it is not your job to manage their feelings, especially during this time. A simple, “I’m going to allow myself to experience my own feelings. I trust you can handle yours”, may help to clarify your thoughts with them.
Many people assumed that as a therapist, I would know how to handle my emotions during this time. But emotions following a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming for everyone. Putting together an emotional survival plan will be helpful and can guide you in the most emotionally challenging times. Be sure to include your support people, coping skills, your theme for your treatment period, and your list of self-care strategies. If you follow the plan and are feeling like you need more support, reach out to a therapist in your area who help you talk through the emotions that trouble you.