Section 3: Emotional Health and Wellness

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The goal of this section is to provide information, resources and strategies to help you to understand your feelings about having breast cancer and to cope with these emotions. You will see the symbol highlighting the suggested coping strategies.

  • Emotional distress can affect African American women regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, African Americans are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Whites, and 14% of women report feeling sad at least some of the time compared to 10% of men.

  • It is normal to feel some distress during and after cancer treatment. Distress includes negative feelings, like sadness, fear, worry, self-blame, or hopelessness. Certain events in your cancer journey may increase your distress. These include getting a new diagnosis, going through difficult treatments, getting bad news about control of your cancer, coming to the end of active treatment, or having cancer return.

  • Young women with breast cancer are more likely to be seriously distressed than older patients. Younger women become depressed because cancer interferes with more aspects of their busy lives. Sexual problems, pain, and menopause symptoms are especially common concerns.

  • It is not uncommon for women to experience a period of intense emotion following a breast cancer diagnosis. As a young African American breast cancer survivor, you may experience a wide range of emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety, emotional numbness, exhaustion, optimism, and/or peace.

  • While experiencing a wide range of emotions is common, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of more serious mental health conditions, such as the following:

    • Depression

    • Anxiety

    • Anger

    • Survivor guilt

    • Self-blame

  • There are strategies you can use on your own to cope with your emotions, including prayer and meditation, keeping a journal or blog, getting physical activity, and speaking with a mental health professional.

  • It is a good idea to look to family, friends, and other loves ones for support. Women who get the support they need from their partners, family members, friends, classmates, coworkers, support group members, and neighbors may be better prepared for treatment and survival.

  • Sometimes it may be difficult to manage intense emotional feelings on your own, even with the support of family and friends. Speaking with a mental health professional can be a helpful and confidential way of navigating your emotional response to having breast cancer.

SUMMARY

WHAT YOU MAY EXPERIENCE AFTER DIAGNOSIS

It is normal to feel some distress during and after cancer treatment. Distress includes negative emotions, like sadness, fear, worry, anger, self-blame, or hopelessness. Young African American women have reported wondering why they developed cancer so young, and whether or not there are other African American women feeling the same way. Feeling scared, sad, and alone one day and optimistic, peaceful, and empowered to overcome the disease the very next day is a commonly reported response. A breast cancer diagnosis can be very stressful, so you are entitled to experience whatever feelings naturally come to you. The important thing is to understand your emotions so that you can know when and how to get help from your friends, family, or a mental health professional if needed.

DEPRESSION

Depression is a common mental condition that affects both the mind and body. Depression is more than “the blues.” Most young women with breast cancer will have times when their mood is low. It affects how you think, feel, and behave on a day-to-day basis.

Depression is a lonely and overwhelming condition. The following tips may help you in coping with depression.

  • Take time for yourself. Give yourself permission to avoid social situations that make you feel upset, even if family and friends do not understand. But be careful—spending too much time alone can make depression worse.

  • Speak to a mental health professional. Mental health specialists (can help you decide whether you need medication, or if specialized counseling could help you feel better.

ANXIETY AND PANIC ATTACKS

Anxiety may result from a stressful life event, like being diagnosed with breast cancer, making treatment decisions, or other events occurring after the completion of treatment. Regardless of having cancer, many people feel anxious from time to time. It is important to assess differences between feeling occasional anxiety (for a short time), frequent anxiety, or chronic anxiety (worrying most of the time).

A panic attack is a sudden, intense feeling of fear and danger with physical symptoms that lasts for several minutes or more. During a panic attack your body goes into “fight or flight” mode: your heart may race, you may sweat, feel dizzy or out of breath, or like you may faint. Your stomach may hurt or you may feel very cold or overheated. Panic attacks can happen if you have a thought or experience that worries or frightens you, or it can happen for what seems like no reason at all. Some people say a panic attack feels like a heart attack; other people feel like they are going to lose control or “go crazy.” The first time you think you might have had a panic attack, it is important to talk to your doctor, since some serious medical conditions can cause the same symptoms. Panic attacks can be very scary but are not dangerous to your health.

ANGER

You may be angry about your breast cancer diagnosis. As a young woman, you may especially feel that it is not fair that you have breast cancer and must undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and/or take medications for many years. It can be hard to grasp why such a challenging event is happening in your life and the natural reaction at times is to be mad at yourself and others. Coming to terms with your anger, understanding it, and learning to manage it is part of your personal growth. Many women find that with time, they learn how to turn anger into more positive emotions, such as accomplishment, understanding, and empowerment.

SURVIVOR GUILT

When you were diagnosed with breast cancer, you may have asked yourself, “Why me?” You may also feel like you are the only person in the world dealing with breast cancer. If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing survivor guilt. Survivor guilt is common among cancer survivors. However, do not let yourself feel guilty for too long. Holding onto feelings of guilt cannot change anything. These emotions use up energy that you need to take better care of yourself (e.g., being active, eating healthy, resting, and following through with your cancer treatment and after care).

SELF-BLAME

It is actually very common for breast cancer survivors to blame themselves for their diagnosis. Sometimes women blame themselves because it is easier to think that you did something wrong than to feel like you have no control over your cancer. Some amount of self-blame is natural, but the truth is that you and your family are not to blame for your breast cancer. Cancer is a complicated disease and scientists and doctors do not know the cause for breast cancer. As a young African American breast cancer survivor, the best thing to do is be aware of your mind and body and take care of yourself.

MEMORY LOSS

“Chemo brain” is a historical term used to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. Although chemo brain is a widely used term, it is misleading. It is not clear that chemotherapy is the cause of concentration and memory problems in cancer survivors. Memory loss can be a frustrating and debilitating side effect of cancer and its treatment. Here are some ways to help cope with memory loss:

  • Keep a notepad

  • Use a calendar

  • Take someone with you to doctor appointments

  • Build a routine and stick to it

STIGMA OF MENTAL HEALTH IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY

While several people experience emotional concerns during their life time, getting mental health services is often stigmatized and people that require mental health services avoid visiting mental health professionals. But it is important to remember that the brain is a vital organ of the body that needs care and healing like other parts of our body. Caring for both your mind and your body is important in achieving comprehensive health. Counseling provides an opportunity to work through your thoughts and feelings in a safe, confidential environment. Subsequently, many people can benefit from counseling and other mental health support. You only share what you want to share and no one will judge you for what you are going through. This is especially important for young African American breast cancer survivors as you may experience especially strong feelings about why this is happening to you so young, along with concerns about being diagnosed late because you are African American and challenges managing school, work, and family.


Click here for more in-depth information on Professional Counseling and Sources of Support.


Section 3: Emotional Health and Wellness

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African American YBCS Survivor Quote

“Yes, you will have the strength to speak out and not be ashamed. As you become educated, you will want to be involved in other activities and be a supporter/mentor for someone else. I suggest you keep a daily journal of your bad and good days. Your emotions will really play a big part in this transition. You will find that peace you are searching for, whether it be sharing your story, involving yourself in some type of fun activities, having that ‘me’ time. It’s OK … it takes time.”