Breast Cancer and Mental Health

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Your mental health matters.

Posted Oct 27, 2020

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign to increase awareness of the disease and breast health. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States (some kinds of skin cancer are the most common). Currently, the average risk of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer sometime in her life is about 13%. This means there is a 1 in 8 chance she will develop breast cancer. The American Cancer Society's estimates for breast cancer in the United States for 2020 are: 

  • About 276,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women. 
  • About 48,530 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS) will be diagnosed (CIS is non-invasive and is the earliest form of breast cancer). 
  • About 42,170 women will die from breast cancer.

Breast cancer is a physical diagnosis and can affect an individual’s mental health throughout the disease. Many women who are diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a known family history of breast cancer, other cancers, or risk factors. As a result, this diagnosis can come as a devastating surprise. The emotional turmoil that results can affect women’s physical health as well as her psychological well-being.

“Women with breast cancer may start eating poorly, for instance, eating fewer meals and choosing foods of lower nutritional value. They may cut back on their exercise. They may have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. And they may withdraw from family and friends. At the same time, these women may use alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, or other drugs in an attempt to soothe themselves.” 

A toll on relationships

The emotional turmoil that comes with a breast cancer diagnosis can often be explained by the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). As women begin the lengthy treatment process and settle into their diagnosis, they are often faced with new problems: physical pain, side effects from the treatment, exhaustion, depression, worry, and anxiety. These can all take a toll on their relationships with their partner, family members, co-workers, and friends.

It is quite common for women to isolate themselves from their support group out of fear they are going to be a burden. Some women may have to take a leave of absence from work because their treatment is incredibly intense. Other women may have to find affordable childcare so they can attend their doctor’s appointments. Many women will lose that intimate spark with their partner due to low self-esteem because of their diagnosis.

It is important for women to understand that breast cancer will change their bodies and affect their confidence and self-worth. Many women may benefit from seeking relationship counseling within a short time from their initial diagnosis as a way to understand their changing relationships. Although cancer can take a toll on many relationships, it can also be an opportunity to become closer to loved ones and meet new women through breast cancer support groups. If you find yourself feeling isolated and losing your confidence, it may be time to speak with a therapist about how you feel and how this can affect your relationships. Relationships and support are a key component to breast cancer treatment, while isolation and broken relationships can be detrimental to your mental health and breast cancer journey. 

Depression: breast cancer’s invisible side effect

Approximately 15 to 25 percent of individuals with cancer (a rate two to three times higher than the general population) develop clinically significant depression, which can affect their ability to function daily, including going through treatment.

Depression can also decrease women’s survival, research shows. According to one analysis, mortality rates were 26 times higher in patients with depressive symptoms and 39 times higher in patients diagnosed with major depression. Symptoms of depression include changes in appetite, changes in sleep patterns, feelings of guilt, sadness, psychomotor agitation (aches, pains, muscle twitching, etc.), loss of interest in pleasurable activities, poor concentration, and suicidal thoughts.

It may be beneficial to talk with your healthcare professional about depression and discuss any pertinent feelings or symptoms to assess if you need treatment. Treating depression earlier rather than later can help keep symptoms at bay. 

Your relationship with your body 

After a breast cancer diagnosis, a woman’s relationship with her body might change as well. While life-saving, mastectomies can decrease women’s body confidence, impact their relationships to their sexuality, and harm overall mental health. Being brave and fighting your disease with chemotherapy, radiation, and hormonal treatment can cause unwanted acne, hair loss, weight loss, and medical side effects resulting in hospital visits.  

Making your mental health a priority

Breast cancer, regardless of the stage, can be a scary diagnosis. You may feel as if your life is slipping away. It is normal to feel sad, anxious, and even depressed; however, it is also important to prioritize your mental health just as you prioritize your breast cancer treatment plan.

Avoid negative coping mechanisms such as alcohol, food, and drugs that can mask your emotions. Taking care of your mental health not only means going to therapy and joining support groups, but it also means practicing self-care, which includes moving your body, sleeping, eating whole foods, doing things that you enjoy, splurging on a wig (if you are struggling with hair loss), and setting boundaries with others. Asking your friends and family to be included in your therapy sessions and self-care routines can also help you build stronger relationships and help them understand what you are experiencing.