Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a life-changing event. A torrent of feelings wash over the survivor. Suddenly, the world feels like an unsafe place. Little things seem unimportant to the survivor. And the big things, like life, seem tenuous. Knowing the emotional responses she is experiencing will help friends, family and fellow survivors support and nurture her, and each other. She needs to be encouraged to fully feel and express each of her feelings.
The most helpful thing you can do is “just stand there” while she goes through the range of emotions. Often we try to “fix” or stop the flow of feelings so we don’t experience the pain and discomfort. But transformation and healing occur when feelings are felt and honored, not when they are repressed or denied.
Here are some emotions you might witness:
1. Shock and Disbelief
“There must be some mistake. It can’t be happening to me! I’m healthy. I take care of myself!” Disbelief is one of the most prevalent first emotional responses.
Breast cancer survivors are faced with many critical decisions. Often there is a time pressure to make treatment decisions. It helps to have support with research about traditional, alternative and complementary treatment options.
“Am I going to die? Will I be disfigured? Will you still love me? Will I love myself?” These are the major questions hovering in the dark recesses of the survivor’s mind. It helps tremendously to bring them up for discussion.
“How sick will I be? Who will take care of the children? How will I deal with loss of income? Will I lose my job?” Once the first wave of personal survival questions are dealt with, these questions wear on the survivor’s mind.
“Why me? I don’t deserve this! I don’t have time or money to deal with this!” Anger, if not expressed, is the most insidious of all emotions. In itself, repressed anger can create disease. Having a healthy outlet for these feelings needs to be part of the breast cancer patient’s treatment program.
” I’m not the one this should be happening to! I eat well, exercise, get mammograms, take vitamins! Why should I have to suffer with this disease!” Often there is no logical explanation for the onset of cancer. It’s natural that feelings of resentment may arise.
“No one ever is here for me. I’m all alone. I have no friends I can count on. I feel so alone!” Even when family and friends are around to help, often survivors feel isolated and alone. They are unable to ask for the help they want and need.
Sadness prevails when any loss is imminent. Tears may flow profusely as the loss of precious body parts is contemplated. The thought of further illness from chemo treatments may seem unbearable. She needs gentle comfort and frequent reassurance.
She may feel that nobody is listening or really understands her. In actuality, no one else can really understand what she is going through. Every person’s experience is unique. Honor her and her uniqueness. Give her space to express her feelings and thoughts.
Seen as a learning opportunity, the breast cancer experience could create a feeling of hope for an entirely new and different life, one filled with passion, fulfillment, joy and love. Knowing that life is ongoing, and only the body dies, can give great comfort during this otherwise stressful time.