By: Suzanne Zuppello
If you stumbled upon this article because your world is off-kilter after a breast cancer diagnosis, know that what you’re feeling is completely valid. While the entire experience of having breast cancer is more difficult than anyone deserves, after speaking with people who have been in this position, we realized that the time right after diagnosis can be particularly vulnerable and challenging. It’s understandable if you’re thrown for such a loop that you’re not sure how to begin moving forward. Although learning to cope after a breast cancer diagnosis is a really individual process, experts and survivors we spoke with emphasized that there are a few ways you might be able to make the experience even a little bit easier. Here are their suggestions.
1. Let yourself feel everything you’re feeling.
It’s totally normal to experience a flood of emotions after a breast cancer diagnosis. “[You] may feel angry, numb, scared, overwhelmed, or as if the universe is an unjust and hateful place to exist,” Kimberly Vandegeest-Wallace, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist with the University of Kansas Health System, tells SELF.
Also totally normal: You may have the urge to suppress these reactions when dealing with breast cancer. Honestly, whatever you’re feeling is valid, and ultimately you should do whatever you need to do in order to get through the experience. For some, letting your emotions come through without judgement can be particularly helpful. “Regardless of the emotional response, one of the most nurturing things we can do is to normalize and make room for it,” says Vandegeest-Wallace. “If you are mad, don’t deny it. Just be mad for a minute. It is an emotion. It won’t last forever.” As she explains, “Emotions are wonderfully fluid.”
After being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2018, Colandra M., 36, found that creating space for her feelings was essential. “If I did not allow myself to feel the reality of what was happening to me, I would not have been able to cope,” Colandra tells SELF. “[It helped] me to overcome … my fear of the unknown.”
For Chelsea M., 30, the anger and sadness didn’t hit until after she finished treatment for early stage triple negative breast cancer in December 2018. Prior to that, she’d been in what she describes as “survival mode,” just trying to get through it all as quickly as possible without exploring her emotions. “Once I was done with [treatment] and went back to ‘normal’ life, I cried every day,” Chelsea tells SELF. “I thought something was wrong with me, but hearing from my doctor that this is very common really helped me feel better. I had to allow myself to just let it happen.”
2. Know that you’re not alone, even if it feels like you are.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer might make you feel completely alone, but it’s critical to understand that you’re not, Brigid Killelea, M.D., M.P.H., chief of breast surgery for Yale Medicine and a Yale Cancer Center surgical oncologist, tells SELF.
Breast cancer is unfortunately common, which is frustrating and devastating but also means that there are other people out there who know exactly what you’re going through. You don’t need to join a support group right now if that doesn’t feel right to you. But even reminding yourself that there are people you can connect with who might be able to help with things like handling loved ones’ reaction to the news can be really powerful.
If you do decide you’d like to take it a step further, you can find local breast cancer support groups through organizations like the American Cancer Society, or you can Google for resources in your area. There are virtual support communities available, too, which might be an easier way to get used to the whole thing.
Philecia L., 32, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2018. The online breast cancer community became a lifeline, she says. “It really helps to relate to someone online without the expectation of meeting up in person,” she tells SELF. “It’s so nice to send a message and talk about something we can both relate to.” Philecia says the friends she’s made through Instagram and other online channels jump to support her “without a second thought.”
3. Try to ask for—and accept—help.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, you might be feeling compelled to isolate yourself at a time when support from those you love matters even more than usual, Jessy Warner-Cohen, Ph.D., M.P.H., a health psychologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, tells SELF. It totally makes sense if you need some time to process by yourself. But one thing that other patients mentioned is the importance of eventually accepting help from their support system.
CJ C., 68, who has been living with metastatic breast cancer for 13 years, acknowledges that wanting to be alone is understandable. However, she tells SELF, life with breast cancer would have been too big a challenge for her to handle on her own. It’s been especially invaluable for CJ to have a loved one be a second set of eyes and ears at doctors’ appointments when she’s experiencing “chemo brain,” or the cognitive effects that can happen with chemotherapy, she explains.
Vandegeest-Wallace suggests trying to get comfortable with delegating chores or anything else that’s simply too demanding. Let your best friend walk your dog. Accept your neighbor’s meals. “As someone hands over lasagna … the newly diagnosed cancer patient may be thinking, ‘My life is clearly a hot mess if someone is bringing me cheesy pasta.’ But cheesy pasta is a symbol of love and friendship, so receive it as such,” Vandegeest-Wallace says.
You might feel like asking for help makes you a burden or positions you as weak, but it only means that you’re a human going through a challenging experience. Needing support at this time makes sense.
“Maintaining a strong support system is essential during and after treatment,” Anna Belcheva, M.D., an oncologist with Houston Methodist Cancer Center, tells SELF. “Family, friends, fellow cancer patients, nurse navigators, and patient advocates can all be a part of that system.”
4. Schedule “you” time each week.
Elaine F., 35, was immediately struck with terror after being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at 34, she tells SELF. Elaine frequently lost herself in thoughts of her illness, which took her to a dark mental and emotional space. Between that and all the logistics that come with navigating breast cancer, she had little time to enjoy as much of life as she could.
“I realized that I hadn’t set aside much time for me to do the things I wanted to do for myself,” Elaine tells SELF. “[I started] setting aside time to do things that would bring me joy,” including hiking, going to comedy shows, getting massages, and reading new books, she says. Devoting her time and energy to something besides thinking about breast cancer gave her a much-needed reprieve.
Dana D., 37, had a similar experience after being diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 2010. As the founder of AnaOno Intimates, a lingerie company for people with breast cancer, Dana often felt like the illness was overwhelming her life from both personal and professional angles. She was constantly juggling doctor’s visits, working to pay medical bills, helping others dealing with breast cancer through her company, and trying to sleep enough due to the understandable fatigue. It was a lot to handle, so Dana learned to treat herself to pedicures, massages, and facials. In addition to the relaxation, this allowed Dana to feel looked after for reasons that had nothing to do with her cancer, she explains.
5. Whenever you can, remember that you are more than your diagnosis.
Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can completely change how you view parts of (or your entire) identity. After undergoing chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, Colandra felt “less like a woman,” she tells SELF. To counter that feeling, she started taking frequent trips with female friends. “After returning home from being away with the girls, I was much lighter in spirit and kept a happy disposition,” she says. “It is so necessary to change things up from the seemingly endless trips back and forth to the doctor.”
Allie B., 30, experienced a different type of identity shift after diving into aggressive treatment when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer and a BRCA1 genetic mutation at 28. “Taking care of my physical health was my top priority,” she tells SELF. “Don’t get an infection. Remember your medicine. Take care of your open wounds. But while fighting for my life, I lost myself.”
Breast cancer, she says, felt like her new identity. She knew that wasn’t true, but she also knew she had to figure out who she was after such a transformative experience. So, Allie set out to discover who her new post-diagnosis and post-treatment self was. Sometimes she did this through seemingly small moves, like putting on bolder than usual hoop earrings to go along with her new buzz cut. Other days, it meant going against her naturally social instincts and saying no to dinners out with friends so she could recharge at home.
It makes total sense if you don’t feel like you can focus on seeing much past your diagnosis right now. But at times when it seems as though “breast cancer patient” is all you are, finding small ways to remember that isn’t true might be helpful.
6. Process your feelings in therapy.
If you feel as though your post-diagnosis emotions are too big to handle on your own, therapy may help you find your way. If you’re not already seeing a mental health professional, here are some tips for finding an affordable therapist.
Allie sought out a therapist who helps her reflect on all that she’s been through. “[It] allows me to actually sit with my feelings,” she says. “There is a lot of power in saying your fears and worries out loud. Talking to her gives me the chance to release the thoughts that I used to let overwhelm me and spin around in my head.”
As Allie explains, her therapist isn’t just a sounding board. While in treatment, Allie found a sense of freedom in talking to her therapist because she didn’t have to worry about sharing certain upsetting thoughts with loved ones who were already worried about her prognosis.
Now, Allie and her therapist focus on self-care. “She reminds me to take time for myself and… engage in healthy practices like meditation and journaling.”
7. Wear something that makes you feel strong during treatment.
Within the span of six months, LaTonya D., 50, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, tragically lost her mother and sister to metastatic breast cancer, and gained custody of her sister’s then-11-year-old son.
Then, while undergoing chemotherapy, LaTonya’s hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes fell out. “I did not want my reflection in the mirror to look like cancer or remind me of my mother and sister,” she tells SELF.
So, before each chemo treatment, LaTonya had a “mini-makeover” at Sephora. She wore fake eyelashes and wigs to get her infusions. Sometimes LaTonya even showed up to chemo dressed up as Wonder Woman, filling the otherwise grueling time with “fun and sunshine,” she says. Dressing up in a way that reminded LaTonya of her strength and perseverance made it a bit easier to get through treatment for both herself and her nephew, she says.
8. Go somewhere or do something with the sole purpose of recharging.
Lauren O., 32, found travel to be transformative after being diagnosed with stage 2 triple negative breast cancer in 2017. “I made it a priority to reclaim my life as soon as I finished chemotherapy,” Lauren tells SELF. “That started with a beachside trip to Mexico with my partner. Connecting physically with the sand, ocean, and salty breeze rejuvenated me spiritually and otherwise.”
This Mexican adventure was so excellent that it changed Lauren’s original plans to return to “regular” life after the trip. Instead, she renovated an RV that she and her partner have used to travel all over the country to tap into what she calls the revitalizing “power of travel.” While you may not be able to do exactly the same thing, finding a physical location that renews your spirit might help you cope with some of the difficult emotions a breast cancer diagnosis can cause. That could just mean going for a walk outside, having a sleepover with a friend or family member, or taking a quick trip somewhere cheap.
Bottom line: Whatever you may be feeling after a breast cancer diagnosis is fair. Experimenting with what helps you cope best is valid, too. As Dr. Killelea explains, “[People] deal with breast cancer differently, and there is no right or wrong way to handle it.”
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.