Take Control of Your Post-Cancer Life
The shock of a breast cancer diagnosis, followed by the dizzying days filled with doctor’s visits, endless procedures, chemo, radiation, and surgeries might do more than rock your world. Once you’ve come out on the other side, you could be left feeling anxious, insecure, exhausted, and as changed mentally as you may be physically.
“After breast cancer treatment I definitely experienced post-traumatic stress,” says Melanie Young, author of Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor’s Guide to Staying Fearless & Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer, who was diagnosed with stage 2A breast cancer in 2009. “I was unprepared for the deep sadness and sense of feeling stuck between my pre-cancer life and my future after cancer.”
Post-traumatic stress symptoms after a breast cancer diagnosis are not unusual, and they’re something researchers are increasingly focused on, says Susan David, PhD, a psychologist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and author of Emotional Agility. “There are both the terror of moving forward and the terror of ‘what if it comes back?’” she says. “It’s relief mixed with anxiety and fear.”
A 2011 study of more than 3,000 Danish breast cancer survivors found that one in five experienced “severe” post-traumatic stress symptoms three months after surgery. And a 2016 German study of 166 breast cancer patients found that more than 80% experienced some level of post-traumatic stress symptoms early on, with the number dropping to 57% one year after diagnosis.
So now you’re cancer-free. But after spending so much time with little-to-no control over what was happening in your life, how do you reclaim a sense of control post-treatment? How do you build up psychological and spiritual strength? Where and how can you find new sources of inspiration going forward? What kind of support do you need? Indeed, how do you transition from “survive” to “thrive?” These steps may help.
Allow for feelings
“It may take time, but to build up psychological strength, I encourage you to lean into your experience and give yourself compassion and space to truly feel,” Dr. David says. She suggests acknowledging your feelings (they’re normal!) and practicing letting them go. True, you don’t know what the future will bring, but you’re a breast cancer survivor, and that’s something to celebrate today. Mindfulness—the act of being present in the moment—may help, Dr. David adds. Focusing on the here and now rather than ruminating on the past or fearing the future may help keep negative emotions at bay—even if it’s just for a few minutes. And you can build on that.
Write down the hard stuff
Whether you use a pen or keyboard, Dr. David says that writing about traumatic aspects of a breast cancer experience is often helpful for coping. “Applying words to emotions can be a tremendously helpful way to deal with stress, trauma, and fear,” she explains. In Emotional Agility, David details years of research on this subject showing an increase in physical and mental wellbeing after people engaged in “emotionally significant writing.” Even months after their writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, better immune function, and fewer doctor’s visits.
One study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that participants who wrote about their traumas for just two minutes a day for two consecutive days reported fewer health complaints four to six weeks after the last session. “You don’t have to write your memoirs,” she says. “And no one else has to read it. But the power of honestly facing your experience and the emotions attached to it may surprise you.”
Develop a power mantra
With your diagnosis and treatment behind you, take the time now to find a short mantra to say aloud every morning as soon as you wake up, says Marisa C. Weiss, MD, director of breast health outreach at Lankenau Medical Center near Philadelphia, chief medical officer of breastcancer.org, and a breast cancer survivor. “It might be, ‘Thank God, I’m alive,’ or ‘I’m happy to be alive,’” Dr. Weiss explains. “Next, say, ‘I’m going to do the best I can to be as healthy as I can today.’ These could be small but meaningful ways of shifting your perspective and reclaiming a sense of control post-treatment.”
There are few better ways to recover mentally from breast cancer than starting or rebooting an active lifestyle. “Physical activity may help with feelings of fatigue and sadness, especially if you’ve got a friend who wants to do things with you,” says Corinne Leach, PhD, MPH, MS, director of cancer and aging research for the American Cancer Society’s Behavioral Research Center.
Dr. Weiss considers physical activity too valuable to be optional. “Your health depends on exercise and so does your quality of life,” she notes. “Not just your breast health but your heart and bone health and your sleeping and mood, too.” Even if your post-treatment body feels different, know that there are so many choices for healthy activity, Dr. Weiss says. Experiment to find what feels good: “Mix it up, make it social, and use exercise as a way to connect, something that will really help if you feel hopeless or anxious,” she says.
Give yoga a try
Adding yoga moves to a regular program of aerobic exercise and strength training may be of particular benefit to the mental health of breast cancer survivors, according to the American Cancer Society’s guidelines. A meta-analysis of 10 studies exploring yoga’s potential benefits for cancer patients showed that regular yoga practitioners experienced “significantly greater improvements” in feelings of anxiety, depression, distress, and stress than those who used only support groups or did nothing. Even though the studies reviewed were small and more research is needed, the broader health benefits of yoga might make this activity a good one to try.
Clarify your care plan
To regain a sense of control over your health going forward, Leach’s advice is to find out what’s coming your way post-treatment. Being in contact with everyone on your medical support team and understanding—in detail—what to expect might help prevent any stressful surprises. A partial list of things to consider: Follow-up appointments with your oncologist, surgeon, and other caregivers; any scans that need to be scheduled; what you should be doing at home to monitor your progress and health. It also helps to be aware of any potential “late effects” of cancer treatment. “There may be cardiac issues, extreme fatigue, lymphedema (swelling of the lymph nodes in the upper arms), or neuropathy (numbness and tingling) that can happen later,” Dr. Leach says. “If you aren’t aware that these might occur, these symptoms can be concerning and might prompt you to worry needlessly about recurrence.”
Connect with others
Sometimes the thing you need most is quality time with others, Dr. Weiss says. One option might be to join a support group of likeminded people who can truly relate to what you’re going through in the days, weeks, and months following a breast cancer diagnosis. Or, you might just want to pick up where you left off with your old walking group or book club. Your goal: To tap human connections that inspire and empower you.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in September 2021 by Stephanie Fitzpatrick, PhD, Senior Manager of the Multicultural Program at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.