Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy
Everyone dreads hearing the words, “You have cancer.” But for women, a diagnosis of breast cancer may be even more devastating.

Even as you’re filled with shock and fear, you must nevertheless find a good medical team you can trust. Speak early with breast cancer survivors for building confidence. And get as much accurate information as possible for understanding your treatment options.

Have caring and supportive people around you during treatment.  Family members and friends usually want to be helpful. Be very specific about your needs. Most people want to help—but don’t always know exactly what’s needed.

Find someone to talk to. This could be a family member, close friend, clergy or a therapist.  This is not the time to try to tough it out alone.  Many women have been so used to caring for others that it may seem unfamiliar to them to accept assistance for themselves.  But right now, treatment and self-care need to be your top priority.

You may experience intense emotions at times. Anxiety and depression are common as women face this disease. Coping with cancer may also lead to feelings of loneliness, anger, grief, fear, guilt or hopelessness. It helps to have good internal coping resources such as journaling, mindfulness skills, meditation, guided-imagery, prayer, and relaxation techniques.

While a range of emotions is to be expected, chronically high levels of stress and other emotions can lead to secondary conditions such as insomnia, irritability, tension, headaches, concentration difficulties and tearfulness. Seek help from your doctor or a therapist if you are struggling with these symptoms.

One of a woman’s biggest hurdles involves body image. Women are often concerned about appearance and continuing sexual function.  Feelings and fears about loss and disfigurement can be strong. Women worry that partners may no longer feel attracted to them. Partners don’t always know how to comfort and reassure. Sometimes both may feel awkward, or even conflicted, about moving back into intimacy again.

It is very normal to fear that the cancer may reoccur. There are often “markers” (such as 5 years cancer-free) that take on great symbolic importance. Women sometimes fear becoming re-involved in their own lives until they feel more confident about their future.

It can be challenging for a woman to remain centered in family life and even her career when dealing with cancer.  Even though this is a time when a woman must put all her resources into her recovery, she may suffer guilt that she is not able to be as active in other areas as she once was.

Professional help to deal with all the stress, depression or anxiety that often accompany breast cancer may be useful for many women and their families during (and even after) treatment. This is a time when women often learn how courageous they really are—but it can nevertheless be a difficult path to try to walk alone.

It’s important to remember that men can have breast cancer as well as women, and that any serious illness can be a frightening and lonely time for the person who faces it.  There are many resources available—self-help groups, individual therapy, books and legitimate websites all help. Family or couple therapy may also help patients and families face the challenges of breast cancer.

Copyright Kathi Whitten 2010