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Breast Cancer: Post Treatment 0 - 6 Months: Emotional Well Being


The first six months after the end of treatment for breast cancer are likely to be emotionally difficult as a mix of feelings surface. In addition to the sense of joy and elation, there is also likely to be a heightened anxiety and sense of loss - possibly even depression. Your medical team has been a sense of security - plus you've been doing something. Questions surface such as "What's next?" and "How can I stay healthy?"

To help cope, consider the following time tested tips:

Expect a range of emotions  Challenges don't end just because a treatment does. Although the acute phase has ended, a new set of challenges appears as you move from treatment to recovery mode.

  • It is not unusual to feel abandoned and to grieve the withdrawal of the safety net which was provided by constant contact with the treatment team and with your caregivers who have returned to their lives. In fact, you may even be impatient with family and friends who expect you to be back to normal the moment treatment ends (or at least somewhat soon after the end of treatment).
  • It is common to feel anxiety about whether your breast cancer will come back. This is known as "fear of recurrence." It is also known as the "Damocles Syndrome" because of feeling there is a sword hung by a thin string over your head just like Damocles did. This is particularly to be expected when a medical checkup is scheduled or you get physical symptoms such as a cold.
  • Tears may flow at unexpected times for no apparent reason. Sadness and depression are not unusual.
  • People who have survived treatment with relatively few side effects have also reported feeling guilt - especially people who were close to other people who had a difficult time with the same treatment or who died.
  • It is not unusual to feel out of place or alone in a world of healthy people. It is likely that breast cancer caused you to look at death, perhaps for the first time. The experience likely changed your perspective and what is important to you.
  • People don't give you room to recover. Family and friends expect you to be back to the same person you were before your diagnosis. They expect you to be joyful and happy about finishing treatment.
  • It is easy to feel overwhelmed by all the life, relationship and financial problems that were put on hold because of your focus on your illness.
  • Some women even experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • Just as it takes time to heal physically after treatment, it may take even longer to heal emotionally. The esteemed psycho-oncologist Dr. Julia Rowland suggests that, as a general rule of thumb, it will take at least as long to heal emotionally as the period of time from when you were first diagnosed until the end of treatment. It may even take longer.
  • Will you ever feel "normal" again? Yes. In fact, many women report that their lives feel even more full after living through breast cancer treatment because of a new value on each moment.
  • Especially during the first year after treatment, it is not unusual for anxiety and fear of recurrence to surface before doctor appointments and while waiting for test results. This type of anxiety may continue for a very long time. There are techniques available to help you through these periods
  • For information about the emotions and feelings that may surface, and what to do about them, see: Anxiety, And How To Cope With It , Depression 101, GuiltLoneliness, Panic AttackCoping With The WaitHow To Deal With The Fear Of Recurrence, The Meaning Of The Experience

Expect anxiety before medical appointments.

  • Most women report being anxious in the days and hours before medical appointments and exams, especially those that are made as a result of a call about symptoms.
  • If you call with a question about a symptom, and the office takes the symptom seriously, keep in mind that the office is just playing it safe.
  • To help cope, see: How To Cope With Fear Of An Upcoming Appointment With A Doctor as well the as information noted above.
  • It may help if you take a friend with you to appointments.  (A friend also helps raise questions during appointments and recall what is said afterward). At the least, let friends know you are anxious before appointments and would appreciate their checking in on you.
  • NOTE: Prior to medical appointments, you can help make effective use the time if you:
    • Keep track of your symptoms. Consider using our Symptoms Diary to help. (With the click of a button, an easy-to-read graph is created that you can take with you to the doctor.)
    • If tests are likely to be ordered during the appointment, find out if you can schedule them ahead of time. This way you can discuss the results when you are with the doctor instead of over the telephone. This technique also avoids an additional stressful waiting period.

Express Feelings: Find a breast cancer buddy. Join a support group. Write. Do Art  The best way to get through this period is to express your feelings. There are a variety of ways to do that.

  • Family and Friends
  • Breast Cancer Buddy
    • Consider talking with another woman who is going through the same thing you are or who has been there. We call such a person a Cancer Buddy.
    • You can find a cancer buddy through your cancer doctor, cancer support center or such disease specific nonprofit organizations as Breast Cancer Network Of Strength (formerly "Y-ME") 800.221.2141 or American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery program for women with breast cancer. Call 800.ACS.2345.
  • Support Groups and Self Help Groups
    • Consider talking with other women in a similar situation in a support group or a self help group. In addition to the support, you are likely to learn practical information.
    • The group can meet in person, on the telephone or even on line. Support groups have been proven to be good for emotional health, and possibly even physical health.
    • To locate a breast cancer support group, see: Breast Cancer Support Groups. For self help groups see: Self Help Groups. If you are a young woman, other sources include:
  • Writing And Creative Activities
    • Many women find comfort in being creative or by writing their thoughts. Writing doesn't have to be in a bound journal. You don't have to share your writing or other means of expression with anyone to get a benefit.
  • Religion And Spirituality
    • Breast cancer brings an awareness of mortality for most women. Suddenly life seems as short as it is - no matter how long it is.
    • If you haven't done so already, turning to religion or spirituality can help. Most clergy people will speak with you even if you do not belong to their congregation or religion.
    • This may be a time to renew your connection with a religion or spiritual practice. If you are not sure how to proceed, shop around. Talk with friends. Read. Speak with clergy in different houses of worship. Speak with clergy in different religions if you are open to a change.

Consider previous coping mechanisms.

  • Think about whatever strategy helped you get through treatment and otherwise get through life.
  • A few examples of what has worked for other people may help trigger thoughts about what has worked for you in the past:
    • Kristy irons naked.
    • Jamie cleans when she starts to feel overwhelmed by emotion.
    • Terri created a corner of her home that felt sacred. Such a apace may only have a candle or some fresh flowers. She spent about 10 minutes a day being there - taking deep breaths, giving herself pep talks, and saying prayers.

Give yourself a break.

  • Your body and emotions have been through a difficult time. Don't expect to be up to speed physically or mentally right away.
  • Pamper yourself. For example, consider a hot tub with bubbles, fresh flowers, or a night out.
  • Try to get some relaxation and rest. What is relaxing and restful is different for each person. For some people, it can be walking on a beach or in the woods. For some people, it is cleaning out the drawers. You know what has been relaxing and restful for you in the past. Build it in to your life.
  • If you have a spouse or significant other, consider taking a trip, or perhaps two trips. The first trip would just be to unwind after the treatment and to take time reconnecting with each other. The second trip can be a bonus for getting through treatment. Our articles about Travel provide information about how to choose a destination and make appropriate preparations to help keep you healthy and provide information about what to do in case there is a medical emergency.

Get humor in your life

  • Studies show that humor helps keep people healthy.
  • If humor is missing from your life, you can bring it in by watching current or old comedy reruns on television. For more ideas for bringing humor into your life, click here.

Do something life affirming

  • Women who have lived through breast cancer suggest doing something life affirming such as planting a tree, or perennials in the spring, or bulbs in the fall.
  • Start a project that will take a long time to complete.
  • Some women even go back to school. (You cannot be discriminated against because of your health history. To learn more, see: Americans With Disabilities Act

Decide how to define yourself.

  • It becomes important how you define yourself. The word "survivor" means different things to different people. The word(s) you use help you process what has been happening and where you are. The word(s) also help define you in the world. Keep in mind that you are a person who had breast cancer. Breast cancer was not your life before. It is not your life today. You are not your disease.

Consider getting a pet.

  • Studies indicate that pets are good for your emotional health - and possibly even your physical health.
  • The pet doesn't have to be a dog or cat. Look for a pet that fits your lifestyle and budget. Our information, Pets 101, not only tells you how not to get sick from your pet, it also includes such practical information as how to travel with a pet and whether to get pet insurance.

When to seek professional help Talk with a professional mental health therapist who has experience working with women after breast cancer treatment if any of the following happen: 

  • You feel like you're getting stuck emotionally.
  • You have trouble sleeping.
  • You are frequently teary or upset for no reason.
  • Your weight fluctuates.
  • You lost interest in your usual activities and friends.
  • You fixate on your cancer experience.
  • You think you need it.
  • See: How To Choose A Mental Health Therapist

Check your insurance to see if mental health is covered. If it is, what are the limitations and restrictions? If money is an issue, most therapists will work on a sliding scale according to what you can afford to pay.

What Five Year survival means

  • 5-year survival rates are used by medical scientists as a simple measure that allows them to compare outcomes of different treatments. They are also used by doctors to discuss a patient's prognosis in general. 
  • 5-year survival has no medical significance as such.
  • Surviving 5 years after treatment is an encouraging landmark. The longer you survive, the better your chances of remaining cancer free.

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