Breast Cancer and Mental Health

Any life-threatening disease is bound to have both immediate and long-term impacts on the way a person sees the world. On one hand, it’s a reminder to cherish every day you have with loved ones—to not let precious moments go by unsavored. A serious disease can also make day-to-day problems suddenly seem far less dramatic than they previously had been. But if appreciation and gratitude are silver lining of a major diagnosis, you can’t ignore the large storm cloud that they’re accentuating.

Breast cancer is one of the most high-profile diseases in the nation, and the most frequently diagnosed life-threatening cancer among women. While any type of serious diagnosis can be psychologically devastating, breast cancer’s prominence has inspired a great number of studies, many of which focus on the mental health ramifications of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

In many cases, breast cancer is treatable but requires mastectomy. Mastectomy, beyond the disease itself, can increase the rate of depression and low self-esteem that survivors experience. Today, it’s far more common for breast reconstruction surgery to follow immediately after mastectomy. This helps offset the mental health ramifications of the treatment, although, interestingly, a woman’s personality type seems to influence how much reconstruction will benefit her post-operative quality of life.

As holistic medicine gains favor, hospitals are employing a greater number of therapists to counsel not only breast cancer patients, but their family members as well. The impact of having a spouse who battles breast cancer is significant. In fact, a recent Danish study found that men whose wives are treated for breast cancer are almost 40% more likely to be hospitalized for severe depression; more aggressive cancers and relapses corresponded with even higher rates of depression.

Especially surprising is the number of women, not diagnosed with breast cancer, who may need to meet with a therapist because of their non-diagnosis. How is that? Especially for women who struggle with anxiety, a false-positive mammogram yields lower quality of life than a breast cancer diagnosis itself, according to a new study. For those who are especially anxious about their health, fighting cancer with treatment may feel more productive and concrete than living with “what if.”

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kelvin

    Kelvin

    January 20th, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    It can completely break a women’s confidence and can make her weak psychologically. It will have an effect on all aspects of life and that is exactly why it is so angerous. The biological effects of andisease is one thing but it seems like the psychological efforts are no less.

  • Lewis

    Lewis

    January 20th, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    It’s a terrible strain to live under the shadow of breast cancer. My wife’s sister has been through it twice and each time she has been able to beat it, but emotionally she’s a wreck now. It’s impacted our own family too. My wife was hit very hard by the thought of losing her only sibling. Cancer seeps into the whole family’s core.

  • Saul

    Saul

    January 20th, 2011 at 10:39 PM

    I had a brush with cancer ten years ago and my attitude was that I wasn’t going to sit around waiting to die! Do what feels right for you on any given day. If you want to read everything you can lay your hands on and annoy your doctor every day, do it. If you want to curl up in a ball and cry, do it. If you want to curse and shake your fist at the heavens, do that too. Because when you’re doing something, anything, that means you’re alive and have got some fight left in you! Just don’t let anyone tell you to do. Choose what you want to do. It’s your cancer, your treatment choices and your life.

  • VICTORIA

    VICTORIA

    January 21st, 2011 at 2:50 AM

    I’ve heard of a friend’s friend who ended up taking her own life after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.It was then that I realized how much a disorder can affect you in ways other than its normal medical symptoms.

  • Nikki G

    Nikki G

    January 21st, 2011 at 5:39 AM

    There are so many elements that go along with living and dealing with cancer. First there is the terror and anxiety that you feel when you get that initial diagnosis. And then you have to decide how you are going to fight this thing? Are you going to be a warrior or are you going to allow it to consume you without giving it a fight? Then there is the guilt that you could be leaving your family behind and I know that must be so difficult on people. And then what happens if you do make it, if you survive this this thing. I have known some cancer survivors who are thankful and grateful for being able to live but for then wondering why they were lucky and someone else was not. Lots of emotions to process with this disease.

  • VB

    VB

    January 21st, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    When I was diagnosed with cancer my husband took the news far worse than I did. I had an extensive family history of it and had always expected cancer to rear its ugly head one day. When it did, I was almost calm. I had seen so many family members battle it that I knew what treatments would be offered and what would or could happen. That knowledge helped me. There wasn’t the same fear of the unknown I would have had had I lived in a cancer-free family. My husband was treated with stronger drugs for depression than I was. It was the first time I’d ever seen him show vulnerability.

  • Penelope

    Penelope

    January 21st, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    Of course women will handle the mastectomy better if reconstructive surgery follows immediately. They never have to see what their body looks like between one surgery and the next. I don’t know why they haven’t always done the operations consecutively like that.

  • NaomiJ

    NaomiJ

    January 21st, 2011 at 5:43 PM

    This is a constructive note to supporters. I understand it can be hard to resist telling the breast cancer sufferer what they should do or constantly asking how they feel, and it’s done with the best of intentions, but really, just being there for us is enough most days. More than anything when I felt rough I wanted someone to sit with me and not ask me about the treatment or how I was. I just wanted to be able to have a supportive person within arms reach if I needed them. Trust me, being there physically and staying quiet with me is as helpful as all the chat in the world. Some days I simply don’t feel like talking about my cancer for one more second.

  • runninfast

    runninfast

    January 22nd, 2011 at 6:13 AM

    Getting more therapists involved with oncologists may be good. It gives the patients a lifeline that that they may not have had before. This gives them an outlet to feel free to talk and vent and get some suggestions for learning to deal with and hopefully even overcome cancer.

  • Joan

    Joan

    January 23rd, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    If I found out I had breast cancer tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate to have a double mastectomy. My mother died of breast cancer at a young age. If she had agreed to have that done, her life may have been saved, but she didn’t. I’ll not be making the same mistake. What use are they anyway at my age?

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