A breast cancer diagnosis is a life altering event, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Surprisingly, little attention has been devoted to conducting scientific studies that measure anxiety, depression, and PTSD rates in first time breast cancer patients. Even less scientific attention has been paid to these psychological effects in patients who have experienced a recurrence or a metastasis of their cancer. The statistics available are all over the map but it can safely be said that almost all breast cancer patients will suffer from depression and high anxiety levels sometime on their journey from diagnosis to post-treatment.
These feelings may be short-term for many, disappearing within a few months after treatment ends. A significant percentage of first time breast cancer survivors (US studies say 25% while European and Australian studies say at least 50%) will go on to develop long term post-traumatic stress disorder. There is very little statistical evidence pinpointing the rates of depression and PTSD in women with breast cancer recurrences but an 80% combined severe depression and/or PTSD rate has been cited in some articles. For the stage 4 patient, it is frequently noted that the depression and PTSD rates are “very high,” which really isn’t all that surprising. While the scientific studies are few and far between, it is stated repeatedly in the cancer literature that most of us will have to deal with these negative emotions some time along our journey.
Drs. have long recognized that a cancer diagnosis is a huge emotional blow to their patients. Just the very word “cancer” strikes the fear of disfigurement, a shortened life span, and a slow painful death into the hearts of most of us. Anti-anxiety medications such as Ativan or Xanax are often prescribed to the newly diagnosed and prescriptions are freely refilled during treatment and for a short time thereafter.
The cancer diagnosis may be given in person or over the phone, depending on your doctor. If it’s over the phone and you have paper and pen ready, you may have some recollection of the finer points of the doctor’s call when you hang up. Or maybe not. My first diagnosis was over the phone and while I wrote notes as a rush of medical jargon came my way, all that was written on my page was “breast cancer” about eleven times, in increasingly larger letters. I didn’t even manage to write down my next appointment and had to call his office back to find out what I was supposed to do next. My mind felt like a sieve in the early days of my first diagnosis as I could not seem to retain anything but the most basic information. At other times, I felt like I was having a weird out of body experience, somehow removed from all that was happening around me. I guess the shock of having your whole world turned upside down in a moment creates chaos in your brain.
I strongly recommend taking a tape recorder and/or another person with you to the surgeon’s and oncologist’s office for your visits. The amount of information given is too much to absorb on your own, let alone process and act upon. Some doctors will explain things in plain English while others may use medical terms in a way you don’t understand. Even a diagnosis such as “triple negative breast cancer” will leave you staring blankly if you have never heard the words “triple” and “negative” applied to breast cancer before. It feels as though you have to learn another language just to understand what is going on in your body. The worst part is that before you have even mastered the fundamentals of this new language, doctors are asking you to make many impossible decisions and to make them quickly.
The diagnostic period and the treatment planning time are among the most confusing and stressful parts of the cancer process. Not only are you reeling from the shock of learning you have cancer, you are given a huge amount of unpleasant choices to make, any of which have the potential to change the whole course of your life.
Do you want a lumpectomy with radiation, a single mastectomy, or a double mastectomy? Chemotherapy before or after surgery or no chemotherapy at all? If you choose chemotherapy, here are the risks and benefits of each type we could offer you. One can cause long term heart problems and the other increases your risk of uterine and bladder cancer. Which would you prefer? Do you want immediate reconstruction or do you want skip that and use prostheses or would you rather be fabulously flat? If you choose reconstruction, do you want implants or surgery that uses your stomach, back muscles, or buttocks to create a new breast? Is genetic testing necessary? If you test positive for a genetic cancer, do you want your ovaries removed now or later?
All these decisions and more have to be made in a short period of time while you are still reeling from emotional shock, not fully absorbing all the information being thrown your way. It’s a wonder any of us stick around the doctor’s office long enough to make any decision, informed or otherwise!
The initial diagnostic period also involves further scans and tests to determine if you are one of the 10% of first time patients whose cancer has already spread from the breast to another part of the body. The testing portion of this period can bring on intense feelings of fear, worry, and depression as you have no idea whether the cancer has already travelled past the breast and into your bones, lungs, liver, or brain.
The whole pre-treatment process takes on an air of unreality as only a short time ago you were blissfully unaware that you were even sick. Is that really you rejoicing over clear scans and hearing yourself agreeing to amputation of part or all of your breast(s) followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation? I swear cancer never felt real to me until the first moment I would wake up in the recovery room after surgery, moaning for a shot of morphine. With surgical pain, cancer got real very quickly (and yes I felt this way all 4 times).
Each patient has their own way of coping with the physical realities of surgery and other treatment. Some women move quickly from shock into fighting mode, telling themselves and their loved ones they will beat cancer and kick it’s butt into the ground. Some women place their faith in God to get them through the hard times. Others adopt a strategy of trying to always find the positive or the humorous side of cancer. Others just get plain angry at the Universe, fate, or God.
All these coping strategies can be helpful during treatment as they may provide the motivation to continue with chemo or radiation even when your body is weary and just wants the treatment to be over with NOW.
Some people can stay in one particular emotional mode throughout the treatment process. Most of us flit in and out of various modes, one day feeling like a tough warrior and the next feeling like a fragile bird with a broken wing.
There are those who struggle with debilitating depression and anxiety throughout the treatment process. They may have to force themselves to continue treatment when the going gets rough. They may question if they are putting themselves through the pain of chemotherapy or radiation for a cancer that may recur or metastisize anyway, regardless of what they do. They may feel overwhelmed, sad, and stressed most of the time.
If you are feeling severely depressed, it may be that you are lacking a strong support system. If you can reach out to family, friends, a church or a counsellor for help, it may make life easier to deal with. If the depression is persistent and is interfering with your life, please consider psychiatric intervention and possibly a prescription for antidepressants.
The treatment period can heighten feelings of depression through a combination of physical and emotional factors. One of the key features of all the treatment methods is that they bring on severe fatigue which can quickly lead to emotional exhaustion. Getting out of bed, showering, and eating breakfast can feel as exhausting as a full day of physical labour. Throw a couple of children and pets into the mix and you are drained of all energy by 9:00 am.
There are also the emotional stresses of dealing with a radically changed body from surgery and hair loss from chemotherapy. This plays havoc with your self-image and self-esteem as you wonder where the woman you used to look like a few months ago has gone. With your bald head, lack of eyelashes and eyebrows and whatever surgery was done to your body, you may feel she has no hope of ever coming back. The physical changes are difficult at any age but seem to be harder for young single breast cancer patients to handle. The literature notes that the young, the single, and the poor have the highest rates of depression and PTSD following a breast cancer diagnosis.
Depending on where you live, there may be financial pressures if you don’t have adequate health insurance or if you have to quit your job as paid sick leave is not offered. If you are a single parent with little support, every day can feel like one long endless challenge.
Coping with cancer treatments and chemobrain simultaneously can leave you feeling helpless as your short term memory fades and you find yourself literally at a loss for words as the connection between the thoughts in your head and what comes out of your mouth seems to be irreparably broken. I remember bursting into tears several times trying unsuccessfully to express a simple sentence. At times I thought the cancer had spread to my brain as I was constantly forgetting where I had left my keys, purse, or phone and I often didn’t have the words to express to others what the problem was. Even though my doctors said it was chemo brain that was responsible for my memory and language problems, at times I thought I was losing my mind. Or that at the very least, I had suffered a stroke or was experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s symptoms.
A very vulnerable time for breast cancer survivors is when treatment ends and they stop being patients who see their medical team on a regular basis. Some of the women who spent their time in treatment being fighters or being angry or being positive come crashing down the hardest when treatment ends. I have heard women describing themselves as feeling lost and not knowing what to do next once that last chemotherapy or radiology session they were so looking forward to has come to an end. After all these months of anticipating the end of treatment, the actual ending seems anti-climatic yet frightening at the same time.
For many women, the end of treatment is when depression truly hits them. Their pre-cancer life is gone forever as they have faced their own mortality head on. There is no turning back the clock and regaining the innocence they have lost. At the same time, their identity as a cancer patient has come to an abrupt end and they must face their inner fears of a recurrence or a Stage 4 diagnosis alone, without the support of their medical team.
This transition time is very hard for many women. They reached their goal to finish treatment but they don’t have a new tangible goal to strive towards. Others around them impatiently wonder when they are going to resume their old activities and lifestyle. Their family and friends may begin to withdraw the emotional and physical support they offered during treatment as they expect the woman to bounce back to normal in a week or two, or maybe a month tops. The survivor may feel misunderstood by everyone, including herself. She may wonder how she could stay so positive through treatment and then be hit hard with depression when the treatment ends.
Cancer treatment is a physically and emotionally draining experience and it is unrealistic to think that everything will be back to normal as soon as the last treatment session ends. It takes a long time for your body and mind to recover from the trauma of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. As doctors tell their patients to find their new normal, it may be impossible to return to the days of the old normal. Priorities may have changed significantly in the year or so that has passed since they were first diagnosed with cancer. Returning to the old normal may not be an appealing option anymore.
The emotional trauma experienced after a cancer recurrence or a Stage 4 diagnosis takes even longer to process than a first time diagnosis. When cancer spreads or comes back, you can no longer tell yourself that if I make it 5 years, I will be cured. It becomes clear that cancer doesn’t play by the rules, at least not for everyone.
When the 5 year magic cure rule is broken, many illusions that gave hope the first time are shattered forever. You no longer believe that medical science has all the answers, especially if your cancer was caught early and your prognosis was excellent. You become aware that cancer can come back again at any time or can continue to spread throughout your body even when it has been aggressively treated. You will never feel safe that this time it is gone for good, no matter how much you change your diet or make other changes to your lifestyle. You will probably continue to do everything in your power to extend your life span but you will know in the back of your mind that cancer can change the rules of the game at any time. These realizations help explain why so many women in these situations suffer severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The universe is not unfolding as it should. It is unfolding in a way that makes little sense to us mere mortals.
This is not to say that all is doom and gloom for any breast cancer patient or survivor. Most patients do recover their emotional equilibrium relatively quickly. Cancer may have made them aware of their own mortality sooner than they expected but there is still plenty of joy to be found in day to day living. There may be a greater appreciation for family and good friends. We may feel more grateful for the little pleasures in life that we once took for granted. The little things that used to drive us crazy may no longer even make a dent on our emotional radar. They say don’t sweat the small stuff. After cancer, most of our minor annoyances definitely turn out to be small stuff.
Those of us who suffer from PTSD may face a tougher road back to regain our positive psychological health. We may look fine on the outside, return to full- time employment, and make every effort to get on with our lives but the emotional quality of our lives may still be wounded and damaged. Some of the signs that you may be suffering from PTSD are: flashbacks or nightmares about cancer or treatment, blanking out and forgetting important parts of the cancer process, feeling emotionally numb, feeling continually hopeless and helpless, loss of enjoyment in activities that used to bring you pleasure, suicidal thoughts, and being hyper-sensitive to anything that reminds you of your cancer or its treatment. The advice given by the Mayo Clinic is that if these feelings persist and are interfering with your life, you should seek professional help at the earliest opportunity before the symptoms become further entrenched and harder to treat.
To minimize psychological distress no matter where you are in your cancer journey, using self care techniques will make the process easier. Activities that promote relaxation such as meditation, yoga, or massage can help you deal with stress. Having someone to talk to, whether it is a friend, family member, or a professional will help with sorting through the difficult feelings you may be experiencing. Finally, an in person or online support group with other women going through cancer can help you to see you are not alone and that there are others who understand exactly what you are feeling. Sometimes just knowing that your feelings are shared by many other women across the world can help you feel normal in the very unnormal world of cancer.
Sharon Greene December 16, 2014
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