Published On: Fri, Aug 23rd, 2013

Faring with an Unfair Diagnosis: Breast Cancer

In a waiting room woman holds her head after getting a Diagnosis for Breast Cancer

Faring with an Unfair Diagnosis: Breast Cancer

-by Dr. Connie Stapleton, PhD

You have breast cancer,” are four horrifying words that will be heard by an approximate 288,000 women this year. According to the American Cancer Society, that’s how many new cases of breast cancer is diagnosed in a single year’s time; over 39,000 people will die this year alone from that insidious, baffling disease.

It’s no wonder then, that shock, panic, fear, desperation, bewilderment, anger, and helplessness are words that describe the feelings experienced by the women who are told, “You have breast cancer.”  Even men get breast cancer – 1 in 100 cases of breast cancer occurs in males.

Like so many catastrophic challenges in life, we hope, pray, and assume cancer will happen to “other people.” When it’s not the “other people,” but ones self that is diagnosed with breast cancer, life changes permanently – in an instant. It’s a moment when we long for the “problems” from yesterday’s world: the irritable boss who makes life difficult for eight hours of the day, the overdraft charge at the bank, finding out there’s no milk in the fridge after the cereal has already been poured into the bowl, or not getting enough sleep because the baby woke up so often during the night. Those problems are enviable when the words “You have cancer” are directed your way. Those words signal the moment we bargain with God or the Universe and promise to never, ever again complain about anything, if only we are spared death as a result of this monstrous disease.

The common experience of feeling adrift on a sea of isolation and panic after being diagnosed with breast cancer can result in the patient having outbursts of anger, “How could you possibly know how I feel? You’re not the one who just found out you have cancer – CANCER!” “My life just changed completely and the rest of the world is simply going about their business like nothing’s wrong. It’s not fair!” Crippling is the helplessness of not being able to stop what seems like a freight train run amok, spilling poison into your body. “Get it out of me!” “Make it stop!”

The initial reactions to a breast cancer diagnosis run the gamut from hysteria to an immediate “take charge” mindset. What’s a normal reaction? Whatever is experienced. There are certainly no “right” or “wrong” feelings in such a situation.

Breast cancer, like other diseases, affects every area of a person’s life: their spiritual, physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and, what I refer to as one’s enterprising area of life, are altered…as are the lives of those closest to the patient.

Spiritually, the breast cancer victim may get angry with their Higher Power, struggling with the reality that they are the person unfairly attacked by a disease over which they have no control. They may believe that God is punishing them, which may lead to self-recrimination over past mistakes. As the person cycles through the grief process, they often come to actively live the faith that came so easily when all was well in their world, trusting that things will work out, regardless of the course the cancer takes. Family members and friends question their own faith, struggling with their powerlessness to “make it better” for their loved one.  

Physically, depending on the treatment methodologies, breast cancer results in relatively minimal scarring from a biopsy to radical bodily changes caused by a single or double mastectomy. Nausea, vomiting, weight changes and hair loss typify the biological consequences of both the disease and the treatment, also drawing attention from those in the outer circles of one’s social world, silently screaming, “Something is wrong with me. Can you see it?” Stress weighs heavy on loved ones as they rearrange their lives to accompany the cancer victim to numerous doctors’ appointments, make time to visit with them in an effort to cheer them up, and take over life’s responsibilities that the patient is unable to tend to during the course of their illness.

The cancer alters the social lives of the patient and their family. At times there are too many people around, all with good intentions, but who may cause unwitting fatigue for everyone involved with the disease. Many social events are scratched off the calendar, as the disease drains energy from the patient’s body, mind and spirit. Children attend their activities acutely aware that mom and/or dad is not at the game because of “the cancer.” They are unable to focus on the activity at hand for worrying if mom is feeling all right and if dad is taking good care of her. Perhaps they are angry that they can no longer participate in certain events because money is tight; they may feel guilty because they are mad at mom.

Cognitively and emotionally, patients often struggle. “What did I do to deserve this?” “How will my husband want to make love to me if I lose my breasts?” “I won’t feel like a woman.” “I have four daughters… what if they get breast cancer… I’ll never forgive myself.” A man with breast cancer may feel emasculated and embarrassed with a diagnosis that is “for females.” These sorts of thoughts exacerbate the feelings of anger, helplessness and hopelessness universally experienced by breast cancer patients at some points during the disease process. Family members also struggle with difficult thoughts and painful feelings. “Why can’t I make this better?” “I feel so guilty when I get irritated (with the patient).” “If I were a better boy/girl, I could make Mommy feel happy.”

Depression and anxiety are common among everyone affected by the disease. The symptoms of depression and/or anxiety include changes in sleep patterns, changes in appetite, feeling physically irritable or agitated, being fatigued or having little energy, experiencing guilt or feeling worthless, being indecisive and having trouble concentrating, having recurrent thoughts of death, experiencing excessive anxiety and worry with difficulty controlling it, and having significant muscle tension.

A person’s enterprising area of life encompasses those things a person does to give back to their community, ways they expand their education, and ways they choose to participate in personal interests and hobbies. When breast cancer strikes, these parts of life, which often provide a personal sense of satisfaction, enjoyment and pride are curtailed.

It is common for people to cycle through the grief process as they come to terms with the diagnosis, treatment and prognosis accompanying their breast cancer. The Kubler-Ross five stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, not necessarily in that order. It is also common to move in and out of the various stages of grief as one moves along the trajectory of treatment for their cancer. Family members also move through the same stages; most often not everyone moves in unison. Thus, the home of a person being treated for breast cancer is a cacophony of emotions and activity.

The physical treatments for breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, include surgery, (lumpectomy, mastectomy), radiation therapy, and systemic therapies or treatments that reach cells throughout the body by traveling through the bloodstream, biologic therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy. These treatments are for the patient only, with the aim of curing the cancer and/or prolonging life.

Psychological treatments can be helpful for the patient as well as his or her loved ones. Although they may or may not prolong life or “cure” the cancer, the non-medical treatments have been shown to positively impact quality of life and to relieve the side effects of traditional medical therapies.

The psychological therapies useful in the treatment of breast cancer include: individual and group psychotherapy/support groups, acupuncture, massage therapy and yoga, energy medicine to include reiki, as well as mind-body practices including prayer, hypnotherapy, meditation, imagery, visualization, music therapy, and art therapy. Relaxation and breathing techniques are frequently utilized in the treatment of breast cancer and other diseases. Holistic treatments such as homeopathy and naturopathy are also utilized in the treatment of breast cancer. These practices include the use of herbs, vitamins and nutritional therapy. Homeopathy views symptoms as the body’s way of fighting disease; symptoms are to be encouraged in order to stimulate the immune system to cure the illness. The goal of naturopathy is to provide whole person care for the patient by addressing the physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of health.

Medical and non-medical therapies, like the cancer itself, impact every area of a person’s life: their spiritual, physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and enterprising areas of life are altered. The goal of treatment is to positively affect the life of the cancer patient and their loved ones.

Meditation, visualization, music and art therapies can help people relax, focus on aspects of life beyond “the cancer,” and are useful in strengthening one’s spiritual life. Additional relaxation practices include yoga, physical exercise and massage therapy. Relaxation decreases stress, long known to exacerbate medical issues by compromising the immune system. Utilizing the many techniques aimed at reducing physical and psychological stress positively affects all areas of a person’s life.

Support groups, as well as individual therapy, can help patients and their families learn to utilize cognitive restructuring techniques in order to minimize negative self-talk and optimize hopeful and positive statements. Learning these skills improves attitude, outlook, and a sense of control. Replacing self-defeating and negative thoughts with optimistic ways of thinking can help decrease symptoms of depression. Learning and utilizing relaxation and breathing exercises decreases anxiety and stress symptoms, thereby improving the body’s immune capabilities.

Utilizing yoga and energy techniques, as well as the use of supplements and vitamins (as long as they are approved by the medical doctors) can decrease adverse symptoms of some medical treatments and can increase energy. In combination with cognitive therapy and support groups, people are more likely to re-engage in social activities and enterprising activities, which in turn can help them feel like life is more “normal” and not solely focused on the cancer.

Breast cancer threatens life and sometimes claims it. Breast cancer also threatens serenity, spirituality, relationships with loved ones, attitudes, emotions, personal interests, and one’s sense of self. 

The treatment of cancer is best when it addresses every area of a person’s life. The loved ones who worry about, care for and go through the nightmare of breast cancer along with the patient also need treatment. Breast cancer is a whole person, whole family disease. Although it physically attacks only one member of the family, the entire system is knocked off balance when the diagnosis of breast cancer is rendered. In order to restore as much health and balance to the family when dealing with a disease as cunning and malicious as breast cancer, it is wise to be aware of, and to utilize, as many treatment options as possible, both physical and psychological.

Breast cancer treatment. No one can do it for you – yet you don’t have to do it alone. Utilize support, from medical professionals, loved ones, friends, clergy and from those in breast cancer support groups. Encourage those with whom you are closest to get support, as well. Learn and practice the psychological and holistic treatments individually, as a couple and as a family. These practices may not “cure” the disease, but will promote optimism, strength and hope. Who’s to say what the most curative factors for any one person will be? 

If it’s your life that is changed in an instant with the words, “You have breast cancer,” optimize the opportunities for healing. Include your family in your healing process. Everyone will benefit. The disease of breast cancer is not fair in any way. Utilizing all therapy options can impact how you and your family fare throughout the treatment process.

Connie Stapleton, Ph.D.




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