What feelings are normal after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, it can feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster. Your feelings will tend to fluctuate from one feeling to another as time goes by.

There is no right or wrong way to feel. You may feel:

  • Scared
  • Shocked
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Guilty
  • Anxious
  • Confused
  • Overwhelmed
  • Out of control
  • Vulnerable
  • In denial

You may find that your feelings will change from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute. Some emotions may surface at the time of diagnosis, while others may only surface later on –sometimes even after you have finished treatment.

A cancer diagnosis can shake your entire world, including your sense of self and your belief system. You may find yourself reassessing your values and priorities in life. What seemed important before may not seem so important to you now.

It’s ok to be angry, to be sad, or scared. The important thing is not to get STUCK in any one emotion.

Is it important to stay positive all the time?

There is no scientific evidence that having a positive attitude will have a positive influence your cancer.

Everybody has a different way of coping with cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel. You may be optimistic that your cancer will be effectively treated, but there may be times when your outlook may darken.

Some people naturally have a “glass is half-full” attitude and tend to seek out the positive in the negative. However, forcing yourself to put on a happy face all the time when this is not natural for you may cause you additional stress. Accept yourself for who you are and know that you are doing the best you can.

How can I cope with the emotions that I am experiencing?

People develop different coping strategies following a breast cancer diagnosis. Some ideas you may want to try are:

  • Journaling
  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Meditation or visualization
  • Joining a support group

What are the things that bring you joy? Watching a sunset? Reading a good novel? Having coffee with a friend? Take time to focus on you and the things you enjoy. Your mind cannot focus on two things at the same time, so focusing on something other than your cancer may help to relieve some of your anxiety.

Anxious thoughts can still creep into your mind even when you are involved in pleasurable things. It is healthy to acknowledge these feelings, deal with them for a limited time and then move through them.

You may find you need the assistance of a mental health professional to continue processing the various emotions. Seeking out professional help when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness, so don’t be afraid to get the help you deserve.

When should I be concerned about depression?

Not surprisingly, many people diagnosed with cancer experience short-term depression and/or anxiety. It is normal for you to periodically feel sadness and grief at different stages of your cancer journey. Sometimes you may find yourself uninterested in things that you used to enjoy, feeling more tired than usual or even feeling like you want to stay in bed all day. That’s OK. Feelings like these are normal for people who have been diagnosed with cancer.

However, if these feelings become overwhelming, last for several weeks or interfere with your day-to-day life and relationships, you should speak with your doctor or a mental health professional. There are different strategies available to help you cope, including counseling and medication.

How can I cope with the stress?

Your toolkit to cope with stress can include:
  • guided imagery relaxation exercises (see audio below)
  • breathing exercises (see audio below)
  • progressive muscle relaxation training (see audio below)
  • meditation (mindfulness-based stress reduction) (learn what this is below)
Guided imagery relaxation exercise

Mary Jane Esplen, PhD, RN, therapist, researcher

 

breathing exercise

Stephanie Phan, OT Reg (Ont.), Occupational Therapist, ELLICSR: Health, Wellness and Cancer Survivorship Centre.

 

 Progressive Muscular Relaxation

Stephanie Phan, OT Reg (Ont.), Occupational Therapist, ELLICSR: Health, Wellness and Cancer Survivorship Centre.

Meditation (Mindfulness-based stress reduction)

 

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a learning program based on the principle of mindfulness. Mindfulness is an awareness of being in the moment, in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness can help you manage the stress of living at high risk, as well as stress related to work, relationships, and other aspects of your day-to-day life.

You may wish to seek out a counsellor or program in your area that teaches MBSR. There also many web sites and books available to learn MBSR on your own.

I would really like to connect with someone who really “gets it”. Who can I talk to?

Family and friends want to support you, but may not understand what you are going through emotionally. You may also not want to burden or worry them. Many people find it helpful to share their feelings and concerns with another person that has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

It can be very helpful to speak with someone who understands what you are going through. The members of our Breast Cancer Support & Information Team have all had breast cancer. Please call us toll-free 1-888-778-3100 to speak with a member of our team.

You may also wish to connect online or in a local support group with others who have been through similar experiences.

Links to more information

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Guide to Understanding Your Emotions
Living Beyond Breast Cancer

Living with Cancer: A Guide for People with Cancer and Their Caregivers
Canadian Cancer Society

Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer
National Cancer Institute

Emotional Side Effects
American Cancer Society

Your Emotions
Macmillan Cancer Support

Remaining Hopeful
National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship

How to Cope with Depression (video)
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center