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How a breast cancer diagnosis can affect your mental health

And what you can do to cope
Posted: 8:54 AM, Oct 01, 2020
Updated: 2020-10-01 17:58:44-04

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as we work to increase attention and support for the awareness, early detection and treatment, we also want to take a look at how Breast Cancer can affect someone's mental health and what someone can do to cope.

Dr. Rachna Raisinghani, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at GBMC and Medical Director for the Division of Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry at Sheppard Pratt says that receiving the diagnosis itself is quite anxiety provoking. She says it depends on what age the individual gets diagnosed, but if you're young and in the reproductive age group, the impact can be a lot more than if someone is past that stage of life.

Some of the psychological effects that a diagnosis can cause is not only depression and anxiety, but self blame as well.

"Why did this happen to me? What did I do? Did I not exercise right? Was my diet not okay? Did I miss my mammographic screenings? So sort of guilt self-blame depression, anxiety about one's career, one's family, especially again, if someone has dependence on them, what if something bad happens to me what's going to happen to them? What about the rest of my life?" Dr. Raisinghani continued.

She says these are some of the common impacts from most cancer diagnoses, but especially for breast cancer for women.

"Cancer treatment can take a tremendous toll on the body," Dr. Raisinghani said. "The term chemo brain is colloquially very well psychotherapy or getting any kind of psychological help can really make it easier to tolerate all these changes that one is going through in their life and make it as bearable as possible. And if the mind is in the right place, it certainly also helps affect physical outcomes in a positive."

Dr. Raisinghani says a way to help manage these emotions is to first try to talk to a select group of trusted friends or family members about the diagnosis, get your bearings right and be honest about your concerns with people.

If you're an individual who just had a family member or friend receive a diagnosis and you're looking for a way to help them, one of the ways you can assist in helping is just by being present and checking in with them in a non-intrusive way.

"Letting them know that 'I'm here, you're not gone from my mind. I'm still thinking of you. I hope you're doing well' and just giving the person who is suffering the opportunity to reach out and either just talk about it or seek any kind of advice or help and just be there and letting them know you wish them well."

Dr. Raisinghani wants to note that if someone does have depression and they have to have chemotherapy with certain medications for breast cancer, the medications can affect the chemotherapy negatively.

She says it's very important to reach out to a professional and have those kinds of conversations to make sure that things are safe, that there are not any concerning drug interactions.

"The more education we spread about this, the better it is for people given how common a condition it is," she said.

One in eight women will get a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer in their lifetime and one in seven women that receive a diagnosis of breast cancer will die of it.

"Unfortunately it is very common and it's actually not just in women, men also get breast and when they do get it, it can be pretty malignant and invasive for them," Raisinghani explained. "So, you know, although we always tend to associate breast cancer with women. I would want to mention that men also do suffer from it. So it's important for them to also be screened if there's a family history or risk."

This is why Raisinghani says it's important to continue seeking psychological help or treatment after a diagnoses.

"Chemotherapy can have pretty far reaching effects. They can persist even beyond the initial treatment," she explained. "There is always a fear of recurrence. Just like if someone has had a heart attack, every time they have a little funny feeling in their chest, they tend to worry if this is another heart attack. Similarly there is a risk of recurrence."

She says people have to continue with getting screening regularly, keep getting mammograms, maybe biopsy.

"These are ongoing reminders that one has been sick and that there is a looming possibility that this may come back again," she said. "So people do feel anxiety and it may alter appearance permanently. Some women may need reconstructive surgery. So these are very tangible reminders that something significant has happened to the body and may continue to cause emotional or psychological distress to a person."

Stress can affect your body in more ways than just being anxious and worried, it can change it physically as well. Things such as trouble sleeping, weight issues, an excess amount of stress can cause lasting health effects.

"The mind and body are very, very closely intertwined. So one just follows the other," Raisinghani explained.