The National Council of Psychotherapists
Dealing with the Emotions of Breast Cancer
Laurel Alexander, complementary therapist, author and teacher
As a woman, I value my breasts. But I didn’t realise just how much until I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39 and had to have a mastectomy.
I remember sitting in a small, chintzy room at the hospital and being told that I would lose a breast. I looked down at my 36DD boobs (or whatever size those two enormous things were), imagined nothing on one side of my chest and a big saggy thing on the other and fell into a black abyss of disbelief and fear. That was 5 years ago. Today I am well and working as a complementary therapist specialising in breast cancer care with patients referred to me by the NHS and GPs.
How did I get from there to here? With difficulty I have to say. I cried, ranted and raved. I wrote all my thoughts and feelings down in a journal. I had counselling. I changed my diet. I looked at my life. I took time out. Sometimes I felt like shit, other times I felt like I could conquer the world.
There are anxieties and questions. What will happen to me? Will the cancer spread? Will the cancer return? Will I be in pain? What did I do wrong? Why has it happened to me? How will I cope? How will I tell the children? Who can I talk to? How can I make sense of what’s happening to me? What can I do to help myself?
First. Any emotion you feel in relation to your breast cancer is fine. The disbelief, the anger, the grief, the fear, and the panic – all that you feel is OK. It’s not nice to feel these things but it is natural. In the beginning, you feel on an emotional roller coaster. You cry, you shout, you want to disappear. The ups and downs are erratic, unpredictable and wild. As we go through diagnosis and treatment, we put many emotions on the back burner. There is too much to experience in just surviving. As we leave the crisis behind us, we do settle down emotionally speaking, but at odd times, months later, you might find a sudden outburst of emotion. Something on the TV, something you read or hear might spark of the tears that you couldn’t shed at the time. You might, months later after treatment has ended, feel depressed – all this is natural. It’s unresolved emotions from the time of diagnosis and treatment just coming out. It’s OK. You might need to talk to someone or maybe you could write your thoughts and feelings down. But this time will pass. I found, with myself and with the women I work with, that as treatment moves past and the days and weeks roll by, you find an emotional balance. I remember when the character of Peggy Mitchell in Eastenders went through breast cancer – I cried. Sometimes when I see the cancer research ads on telly, I feel all churned up. But I have to say; the emotional ups are far greater than the emotional downs these days.
Another question we ask ourselves is how do I know the cancer has gone? How do I know it isn’t spreading like wildfire through my body? How do I know the cancer won’t come back? If we have surgery to remove a tumour or even a mastectomy, we can have confidence that at least a large part of the cancer has been removed. If we have chemotherapy or radiotherapy, these are further insurances that more of the cancer has been eradicated. I tend to say to the women I work with, think of a hoover. Radiotherapy is like having the end piece off and just the nozzle working to hoover up concentrated areas of rubbish. The radiotherapy concentrates its beam on a specific area of the breast area to “hoover” up stray cells. Chemotherapy is when the end of the hoover is back on for a good, all round “hoover up” of any stray cells anywhere in the body. Even with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, there are still no 100% guarantees that we are cancer free. But these treatments can help. And we must hold onto this positive thought.
I have found that the more empowered a woman is and the more pro-active she is in her healing process, the better she feels. If you can constructively deal with your feelings, change your diet, learn how to cope with stress more effectively, take better care of your body and make any appropriate lifestyle changes – the better you will feel. These activities won’t guarantee the cancer stays away, but you will feel more in control of your body and your life because you are taking action and not just waiting for something to happen to you.
Even when all treatment is over and we are in remission e.g. there is no cancer anywhere in the body, as far as anyone is aware, we are still living with the fear of the cancer returning. How do we live with this fear? Although I work with breast cancer patients, I feel confident about my own health most of the time. Once or twice I’ve had a scare and undergone some tests, but so far, so good. In a way it’s about coming to terms with the fact the cancer could return and being aware of suspicious signs. A Macmillan nurse once said to me, “Never let anything slip though.” I don’t. It takes courage to be constantly vigilant with your body. We’d rather not know. We hope to God we’ll never have to know. But you owe it to yourself to listen to your body. Any symptoms you aren’t sure about, getting them checked out. Most of the time, you will be fine.
Many of my clients say to me “I just want to get back to normal.” There is no “normal” again for women who go through breast cancer. The experience changes us all. Hopefully for the better. You might think, how can having breast cancer or any cancer change us for the better? But this is about attitude. Breast cancer is a life changing experience. It has to be. And if you choose, it can make you a stronger (albeit more vulnerable) person. There is a saying “We become stronger at the broken places”. The breast cancer experience affects us profoundly, emotionally, spiritually and physically. It takes time to heal from these wounds, but I know, from my own experience and those of the women I work with, that a positive and realistic attitude towards healing can only help soothe these wounds and provide a source of comfort for the future.
For more information, contact Laurel Alexander, author of Getting into Complementary Therapies, Getting into Healthcare Professions, Getting into Nursing and Midwifery, Directory of Nursing and Midwifery Courses, Getting into Physiotherapy, and Medicine Uncovered (Trotman) plus numerous features in magazines such as Good Health, Positive Health, Health Advisor, Yoga and Health and other titles as well as CancerBACUP News. Tel: 01273 564030, email: laurel.Alexander@ntlworld.com and website: www.laurelalexander.co.uk