When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you quickly reach a whole new level of stress - probably one you never knew existed. By breaking that high anxiety you’re feeling into smaller, individual challenges, it’s easier to see solutions - and a path out of the darkness.
For most of us, breast cancer is the biggest health issue we’ve ever faced.
It’s certainly not a nagging cold. It’s scarier than the flu. And longer lasting than a broken leg. And although pregnancy goes on for 9 months and can include some pretty difficult moments, at the end there’s a nice reward: a baby.
But cancer? There’s not much of a silver lining when you’re faced with the fight of your lif" for you life.
It’s not surprising that many of us actively dealing with cancer feel stressed much of the time.
There’s just SO much to worry about, so many decisions to make - and often, so little time: to think, to research, to weigh options. Or too much time: waiting for surgery, waiting for a pathology report, waiting to see if the chemo works. It’s a ride that’s both bumpy, and uneven: full of wrong turns, speed bumps and, sometimes - dead ends.
It’s no wonder that when you have cancer, your stress level quickly ratchets into the red zone - and stays there.
You may feel victimized by cancer; but you don’t have to be a victim throughout the journey. There are ways to find peace, even in the midst of this storm. By breaking your stress into manageable bits, then dealing with them one by one, your overall anxiety level gradually drifts downward. And pretty soon, you find you’re simply "dealing;" you may not like this lousy illness, but life goes on - and you go with it.
As usual, knowledge is power; here are 10 of the most common stress points around cancer, and suggestions for knocking them down.
Fear of dying
The biggest fear of all: death. "I can’t die. My kids need me. I’m too young. There’s too much I want to do."
Luckily, the odds are with you. Death rates for breast cancer have been dropping since 1990; only about 14% of all women diagnosed with breast cancer (about 1 in 7) will die from it. And, depending on your diagnosis, your chance of dying from breast cancer can be as low as 1%.
Ask your doctor about your own personal odds; they’re probably pretty good. And even if they’re not, understand that it’s possible to beat those odds; survivors do it every day. Believe you’ll be one of the lucky ones.
Fear of treatment
Surgery, chemo, radiation" they’re scary because A) they’re new experiences, and B) what you’ve heard about them is probably horror stories from insensitive "friends." Of course you’re stressed
The answer? Read and research. Once you know what to expect, it’s easier to discount some of your wilder fears. Our Guide to Treatment offers a wealth of information on everything from mastectomy to chemo to hormone drugs.
Thankfully, for most of us the pain of breast cancer is more emotional than physical. Especially during treatment for early-stage breast cancer, the pain is likely to be short-lived, and often minimal.
Still, you’ll experience some pain for sure. What to do? Don’t suffer in silence! This is why painkillers were invented. Keep your medical team informed about your pain levels; fill your prescription; and take those pills on the advised schedule, even if that means taking them when you feel no pain. Drugs can not only deal with, but prevent pain - if you take them as directed.
This is huge for many of us. You need your job; how long will you be out? Is your employer obligated to hold your position for you? And when you come back, what if you can’t manage to perform your former duties?
Don’t try to hide your cancer. Speak to your human resources department; if your workplace is too small for HR, speak to your boss, or a person in charge with whom you feel comfortable. Relay any information your doctor has given you about a treatment timeframe: how many days you’ll be out of work, and any physical issues you’ll have when you come back. Ask about short- and long-term disability; most companies offering a health plan also make this insurance available, as well. Be as upfront as possible; most employers are willing to work with their seriously ill employees.
Your health insurance policy has a huge deductible and ridiculous co-pays; or the hospital bills are so complicated, and the insurance process so tangled, that you have no idea how much you’re actually responsible for. What to do?
Your new best friend is your hospital’s social services department. Social workers are familiar with most of the major health plans, and can help you with everything from understanding your hospital bill to knowing exactly whom to call at Blue Cross. They’re there for you - use them!
No health insurance
Fighting cancer without health insurance can drive you into debt so deep you fear you’ll never get out. You’re trying your hardest to survive - and worried about who’s going to foot the bill.
Again, speak to your hospital social services team. They can see if you qualify for Medicaid, and guide you towards other federal or charitable programs that can help.
The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program offers help specifically to breast cancer patients (though to access those benefits, your cancer must have been detected as a result of NBCCE screening). In addition, all but 10 U.S. states have hospitals obligated to provide free or reduced-cost healthcare to patients who need it, under the Hill-Burton program; check out the Hill-Burton hospital list.
Finally, our post on financial resources offers links to a number of useful Web sites detailing ways to help pay for treatment.
Loss of your breast(s)
You’re going to either lose your breast (perhaps both); or at minimum, see some change. The figure you’ve always had may be permanently altered. You feel awful; a woman without breasts? What to do?
Ask about reconstruction; it’s getting better and better. If you don’t want or can’t have reconstruction, understand that you can wear a prosthesis; either way, you can still look good in that bathing suit. And 99.9% of the time, that’s good enough. For those times when you’re naked - yes, you’ll look different. But that person closest to you will adjust to your new "topography"; you both will, in time.
Loss of control
You’re used to being in charge, right? From everyone’s daily schedule, to meal planning, to whether or not your daughter can sleep over at Kim’s Friday night - you make the decisions.
But suddenly, you’re no longer in control. Between hospital stays, doctor’s visits, and simply being ill, you’re not "there" for everyone. Your church group is providing casseroles for dinner; your friends are ferrying the kids to practice, and your significant other is taking on your usual tasks. You’ve lost control; and that panics you.
The answer? Let go. That’s right, LET GO. If there was ever a time to accept help gracefully, it’s now. The world won’t end if your 6-year-old doesn’t drink his milk at breakfast one morning. And many of the situations you long to control are nearly that simple. Control is mostly about attitude; lose it.
Losing your hair
Like losing your breast(s), having your hair fall out is totally traumatic - at least before it happens. "People will stare. I’ll be so ugly. Everyone will know I have cancer."
Trust me, you’ll stress more over losing your hair than just about any other part of treatment. The good news is, it’s temporary; unlike losing a breast, your hair grows back. Also, you have a lot of options to deal with the situation: a wig, a scarf, hats" or simply accepting your surprisingly beautiful bald head. Our post on losing your hair offers great advice on dealing with this (thankfully temporary) side effect.
Fear of the unknown
“What if”" I have to have chemo? The surgery doesn’t get all the cancer? I get so sick from radiation I can’t work? The cancer has spread?
Life is full of unknowns. Usually we can go with the flow and simply accept them; but with cancer, every unknown feels like a potential death threat. How to cope?
First, realize that the vast majority of your fears will NOT be realized. That’s the nature of worry; we stress endlessly over things that most likely will never happen.
Still, just telling yourself you’re worrying "needlessly" won’t make you stop. You have to consciously adjust your attitude; decide to think positively, then work hard at doing just that. Believing things will go well isn’t going to guarantee a successful experience; but studies have shown, a positive attitude definitely helps lower stress as you slog through cancer treatment.
Finally - knowing all you can about your diagnosis and treatment is the best antidote to fear. You’ve made a great start by finding this Web site. Whether you want to ask a specific question, or simply search on the topics of your choice, you’ll find answers (and support, and hope) right here.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.