by Suzy Farren
When you found out about the lump in your breast, you hoped it was nothing. You felt the initial, ravaging fear, and then you tried to assure yourself that the situation wasn't serious-despite that lingering , gnawing feeling in your stomach. There was the wait as you went in for tests, when you told yourself it couldn't happen to you. And then it came, hitting you so hard you couldn't breathe-the diagnosis: breath cancer.
Working You Way Through
When you or a loved one are diagnosed with breath cancer, it is difficult at first to see anything else. And, the possible need for mastectomy or lumpectomy raises added issues of appearance and self-image.
Unfortunately, breast cancer is not rare. Other than skin cancer, it is the most common cancer to afflict women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, a woman has a one-in-seven chance of developing invasive breast cancer during her life.
What can you do if you happen to be the one in seven? Here are a few steps you can take.
Accept the Feelings
There is no "correct" way for a woman to react to a diagnosis of breast cancer. Shock, despair, depression, anger, and paralyzing fear are very normal reactions. Your life has just been turned upside down. You thought you were health and in control, and you found that you weren't. It's not uncommon to feel disoriented. You may curl up in a ball, or you may dive into a million-and-one-things you've always wanted to do but had never taken the time for.
Despite the fear cancer evokes, it is important to remember that you have the power to take control of how you will live your life during treatment. Now is the time to gather support and mobilize energy for the struggle ahead, while giving your emotions full respect.
Here's some good news; Survival rates are going up all the time, and more money that never is being devoted to research. Ninety-eight percent of women with localized breast cancer survive at least five years, the American Cancer Society says.
There are many support and information groups for people with breast cancer. Information and support are also readily available via telephone, at libraries and bookstores, and on the Internet. You can find help with everything from transpiration to deal with depression to breast reconstruction.
More good news; Surgical procedures today can avoid radical mastectomies in many cases and still yield a successful outcome. And even when mastectomy is necessary, many women are able to undergo breast reconstruction using their own tissue, muscle and skin.
Actually, so much information is available that it's easy to experience overload, so you'll want to get organized. Begin a file with information about breast cancer. Include information you receive during visits to you physician as well as any other information you see fit. Write down the phone number and Internet address of resources available to you. As you become more informed about the disease and your options for treatment, you'll feel more confident about the decisions you make.
Take An Active Role
It is important to take an active role in your treatment. Good communication with your physician and treatment team is vital. Because you will be preoccupied with many thoughts, write down your questions before your visits. Take a tape recorder and ask your spouse or friend to your appointments. Ask your physician why he or she recommends a certain treatment regimen and what the expected risks and results will be. You'll want to know what other options are available. And you may want to get a second opinion.
Avoid isolation. talk about your feelings with your spouse, if married, with close friends, a counselor, or a spiritual advisor. You may also find it helpful to start a journal of your thoughts and feelings. Use your journal to express your anger, fear, sadness, and other emotions. And don't' forget to laugh when something funny happens. Studies suggest that laughter may actually boost the immune system.
Maintain a sense of hope is vital. Yes, you are facing a frightening time, but also focus on the good in your life. Many cancer survivors say that their encounter with cancer changed their lives for the better. They began to appreciate the little things they'd so often ignored or put off. Focus on today rather than the unknown future.
Don't' Overestimate Your Energy
If you undergo chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or radiation therapy, you can expect to feel drained, tired and sick. Involve your friend and family in helping you with routine tasks such as making dinner, grocery shopping, child care, and even bill paying. Don't feel guilty about asking others for help-most of them will want to help you.
One woman with cancer called 12 of her woman friends together. The women met as a group every couple of weeks to divide up the tasks she needed help with-cooking, transportation, child care, laundry and bill paying. At these meetings, they formed lasting friendships with one another. What began as an effort to help a friend yielded additional benefits.
Develop A New Body Image
Women who undergo mastectomy or lumpectomy often experience profound emotions, according to Michelle Melin, director of patient services at Y-ME, a national breast cancer organization that offers information and support services (see sources of additional help). "Women cope in their own individual ways," Melin says, acknowledging that body-image issues can be very difficult to deal with.
Support groups offer the opportunity to express what you're feeling and find out how other women who have been through similar experiences are coping. One woman told her support group how proud she was of her ability to cope with her breast cancer. "I never thought I could handle something like this," she said, "But I feel stronger now that I ever was before."
Another woman explained that all her life she'd felt that her body just didn't measure up to accepted standards of beauty. Her mastectomy forced her to redefine femininity, sexuality, beauty, and self worth. "I became more assertive, more self-assured, and more open about my feelings," she said, "and I like the woman I have become."
Adjusting to you're new image will most likely be difficult at first. Allow yourself time to grieve and move through you feelings following surgery. Melin says that spouses or partners can be a huge help. She urges spouses to let their wives know they are still attractive. "You can never enough times, 'I love you with one breast just as much as I did with two,'" she says.
Expect The "Post-Treatment Blues"
Sometimes the post-treatment period is the most difficult time for people with cancer. Emotional recovery takes longer than physical recovery. Some women feel abandoned when the people who were so supportive during treatment are no longer readily available. It's important to get support during the post-treatment phase.
And remember that your loved ones have also been affected by your illness, and may need help coping after the initial crisis passes. One woman's husband said he hadn't realized the stress the family had been under during the diagnosis and treatment phase. It was only after the treatments ended, and his wife was pronounced cancer-free, that he felt safe to experience the wide range of powerful feelings he had stored up.
In some ways, the diagnosis of breast cancer can make the beginning of a new life. Yes, it will include difficult times, but it will not be without its' hidden blessings. Give yourself permission to cry and rage, but then gather your resources-your inner strength and your friends and your loved ones- to help you respond with courage and hope.
Suzy Farren is the author of several CareNotes and the manager of corporate communicati0ons for SSM Health Care in St. Louis. This CareNote was originally published as Coping with Breast Cancer.
"Thirty years ago, the words breast cancer and mastectomy were said in a whisper. Today, finding the causes and a cure are a national priority. - Diane Gingold Quoted in Newsweek magazine."
"When I found my lump at the age of 27, my doctors were amazed that I had actually done a breast self-exam because they were still trying to convince their patients over 40 of the exam's importance. I want other young women to hear my story so they will be more aware and not be afraid to take personal responsibility. It could save their life. - Geralyn Lucas, TV Producer
Sources of Additional Help
Books: American Cancer Society's Informed Decisions: The Complete Book of Cancer Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery by Gerald P. Murphy, Lois B. Morris, and Dianne Lange, New York, Viking, 1997. My Breast: One Woman's Cancer Story by Joyce Wadler, Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1992. Treading the Maze: An Artist's Journey through Breast Cancer by Susan E. King, New York, Pocket Books, 1997.
Organizations: The American Cancer Society has a Learn About Breast Cancer section on its web site, www.cancer.org. Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization, www.y-me.org, 800-221-2141. National Breast Cancer Coalition, www.natlbcc.org, 202-296-7477.
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