Managing the Psychological Effects of Breast Cancer

A life-threatening diagnosis can make you painfully aware of your own mortality, but there are a host of other physical and psychological effects of breast cancer that can make this a particularly difficult diagnosis. With all the changes that treatment for breast cancer brings — which can include shutting down sex hormones and removing sex organs — so many facets of a person’s life are changed, which can lead to difficulty accepting what is happening.

Understanding the Mental Stress

A recent study found that most women experience some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a breast cancer diagnosis. The symptoms may include irritability, memory and concentration issues, nightmares, anxiety, hallucinations, and self-destructive behavior. These issues should not be ignored, and they can be addressed and alleviated with therapy.

Counseling can be very effective in helping patients deal with the psychological effects of breast cancer. This type of treatment helps you develop skills and a plan for coping with new emotional and physical symptoms. It also gives you a place to process and reframe your changing relationship with your body, providing a safe environment to face the complex emotions that accompany living with breast cancer.

Breast cancer can be particularly stressful for young women who have not yet experienced menopause. Treatment often involves shutting down estrogen production, which puts them in menopause prematurely. For young women who are still planning to become parents, the loss of fertility — and the sexual dysfunction that sometimes accompanies breast cancer — can be particularly stressful.

Losing a Sense of Self

A cancer diagnosis that occurs while a young person is still forming their identity, getting a start on college or their career, or just beginning to date, adds to the confusion and stress. Is the third date the appropriate time to reveal that you don’t have nipples, or should you wait until the fifth?

What does it mean to be a woman if you don’t have breasts, ovaries, or estrogen? I was diagnosed with breast cancer while my child was still an infant and breastfeeding, so my breasts were particularly central to my identity and daily life — not to mention my daughter’s well-being. Because the side effects of treatment included sexual dysfunction, this had a huge impact on my quality of life and added stress to my marriage. Making matters worse, I didn’t feel as though I looked like a woman anymore after removing my breasts, which led to hair loss, weight gain, and my skin’s texture changing. It was a difficult reality to cope with.

Men diagnosed with breast cancer may also face questions of identity and sexuality that aren’t as prevalent with some other forms of cancer.

Coping With the Psychological Effects of Breast Cancer

After I was diagnosed, the best advice I received was to find a group of women who were also dealing with this diagnosis. Once I found my support group, they were there for me through all the other emotional hurdles that cancer put in my way. It was so freeing and helpful for me to be among people who were grappling with the same big questions.

There are in-person support groups where members meet routinely, as well as a wide range of options for finding support online. Online support groups have the added benefit of removing geographical barriers, making it possible to find very specific groups of people living with breast cancer. For instance, you can find online groups for women who were diagnosed while pregnant, groups for men with breast cancer, LGBTQ groups, groups for parenting or fertility, dating, retirees, and a host of other demographic affiliations that may address your most pressing concerns.

Cancer can feel terribly isolating at times, and the emotional roller coaster that accompanies this diagnosis can be terrifying and exhausting. But you don’t have to go through this alone. Finding others in a similar situation can help ease some of the stress of living with cancer.