One moment, you’re sitting at the doctor’s office after an examination. You think nothing of it; just a checkup, a typical routine in the life of someone mindful of their own health. You’re living life and planning what’s next while you wait for the results.
The next moment, your doctor returns with your exam results, and drops two words that block your life of fulfillment and instead leads it on a drastic turn.
Those two words: breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the second most common form of cancer among women in the United States, with 1 in 8 women developing invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. It’s also one of the most fatal. Breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer except lung cancer. Nearly 41,000 women in the U.S. are expected to die from breast cancer this year, and an estimated 2.3 million new cases of breast cancer–both invasive and noninvasive–are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S. in 2018.
What most patients don’t know is that breast cancer also carries with it a high mental health risk.
A survey carried out on behalf of the Breast Cancer Care charity found that 84% of women with breast cancer are not informed about its potentially devastating impact of the disease on mental health. Findings from the survey also showed that 33% of women experience anxiety for the first time in their lives after a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Eight percent experience a panic attack for the first time after a diagnosis, while 45% report experiencing continuous fear that the cancer may return; a fear that, for many, can severely impact daily life.
“I felt isolated from my friends as I had no energy to go out with them,” said Lauren Faye in her interview with Happiful Magazine, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, “and I had to watch from the sidelines as they all got on with their careers, relationships and lives. But the biggest barrier to adapting to life after breast cancer was my anxiety. I completely stopped trusting my body and lived in fear of there being something wrong with me. To this day, there’s always a worry festering in the back of my mind about the cancer coming back. At the end of treatment, the impact of breast cancer on my mental health wasn’t even mentioned by my healthcare team, nor was I referred to support, let alone given any. It wasn’t until I called Breast Cancer Care’s Helpline that my emotions were finally acknowledged and I realised my feelings were normal.”
Physical health directly influences mental health status and overall quality of life, especially for cancer patients and survivors. Though the physical symptoms are more likely to be detected and treated by health care providers, the mental health and social consequences of illness are not as easily recognized.
“Our physical and mental health are closely linked, yet too often, mental and physical health problems are treated separately,” said Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at the London mental health care organization, Mind. “It’s really important that anyone receiving treatment for a physical health problem has attention paid to their mental health and overall wellbeing.”
Poor mental health is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Nearly half of US adults will develop mental illness at some point in their lives, and poor mental health is more prevalent among those with chronic illnesses. In responses to the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, 10.1% of cancer survivors reported poor mental health–related quality of life, compared with only 5.9% of adults without cancer. Population-based data also suggest that cancer survivors are more than twice as likely to face disabling psychological problems, and the risk of psychological disability among individuals with both cancer and other chronic illnesses is nearly 6 times higher than those for adults without cancer.
“It’s understandable,” Buckley continued in the article, 84% Of Women With Breast Cancer Not Told About Possible Impact On Mental Health, “that being diagnosed with or treated for something as serious as breast cancer will impact someone’s mental wellbeing, even if they have never experienced a mental health problem before.”
The Breast Cancer Care survey also revealed that women with breast cancer experience social isolation after their hospital treatment ends, often feeling alone without adequate support and unsure where to find the help they need. More than 1 in 10 women with breast cancer also leave the house less after finishing treatment due to both emotional and physical long-term side effects. Thirty-five percent feel great anxiety, while thirty-four percent say they do not want to speak with other people after their treatment is complete, and twenty-five percent are self-conscious about any changes in their appearance or from possible scarring.
“Damaged body image, anxieties about the cancer returning and debilitating long-term side effects can disrupt identities and shatter confidence, leaving people feeling incredibly lonely, and at odds with friends, family and the outside world,” said Samia Al Qadhi to Happiful Magazine. Al Qadhi is the Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Care. “We know people expect to feel better when they finish treatment and can be utterly devastated and demoralised to find it the hardest part. And though the NHS is severely overstretched, it’s crucial people have a conversation about their mental health at the end of treatment so they can get the support they need, at the right time.”
In the wake of a diagnosis of breast cancer–when you feel your life has stopped in a lonely place and all that’s left is planning your treatment–special attention must be given to the mental health of patients and their families throughout the entire process, transforming the pain from the trauma to growth and hope. One of the best ways of helping that transformation along is the relationship you have with the patient (Helping Others Overcome Obstacles – Part 1: The Healing Power of Relationship). Research shows that relationships are critical to promoting change in those who are suffering and need help, and are the first building blocks toward building hope. They are the first line of defense in identifying the signs of mental illness or disability, including great anxiety and symptoms of PTSD.
Learn more about what you can do to help those around you suffering from breast cancer or other trauma (The Effects of Trauma).
Request information about psychology and counseling programs offered at Divine Mercy University.