Mental health issues weren’t openly discussed in my home growing up, but seeking therapy during and after my breast cancer treatment ended up being one of the best decisions I made.
Growing up, my father didn’t believe in mental-health-related issues. The stigma behind any type of mental illness in our home led me to believe that something must be wrong with me. I wrestled with my own self-image as a teenager and was often told that I needed to “grow up” and that my intrusive thoughts weren’t normal.
I internalized that shame, and it hit me full force when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33. I felt as if the world continued turning around me while my life stopped short.
Learning to process my diagnosis and then a treatment plan while making life-altering decisions about surgical options felt overwhelming, to say the least. I kept telling myself that the thoughts going through my head were wrong and that if I survived cancer, I wouldn’t be allowed to be upset about any of it because that was what I’d been taught.
I later learned that therapy is not only normal, but it can be one of the best tools you’ll ever use before, during, and after breast cancer treatment.
In the past, people often associated needing therapy with the cases of troubled marriages or violent offenders who had lost touch with reality. But today, we recognize the need for reoccurring help. More people are beginning to understand the benefits of therapy.
Having the ability to offload the thoughts that race through your brain during treatment and have an individual give you clinical feedback and understanding is an invaluable tool.
A cancer diagnosis, no matter the stage, is life-altering and can lead to bouts of depression and anxiety. It can sever long-term relationships and leave a person with medical trauma they’re unable to cope with on their own.
A social worker was assigned to me at the hospital where I underwent treatment. She immediately connected me with a therapist specifically trained to help me understand and cope with my diagnosis and treatment. Having biweekly appointments let me know that my thoughts and feelings were normal and provided me with the tools necessary to come out of treatment with my best foot forward.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer at such an early age, I felt as if life was unfair. My scars were a constant reminder of all that I’d lost instead of all that I had saved. I struggled mentally trying to express any of these feelings to my family. I went through a few different therapists before finding one that worked for me.
Finding a therapist that works for you as an individual may take time. Many insurance companies have advocates specifically hired to help find providers in your area that are accessible to you. Also, most oncology wards have social workers that can be assigned to you when discussing treatment.
Asking your doctor about resources that are available to you is the first step in finding someone. Not only will therapists listen and give helpful feedback, but many of them supply the tools necessary to lower stress, teach positive self-talk, and teach you the necessary long-term coping skills.
Consider asking your healthcare team to help you find a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating people with breast cancer.
You can also find help online:
The biggest benefit I experienced from working with a therapist was my ability to interact with others in a positive way after treatment. I was facing a lot of resentment toward people who distanced themselves, but I learned that it was a completely normal feeling.
Being presented with a greater understanding of the way cancer affects all aspects of your life is an invaluable tool. Having someone who was unbiased, unrelated, and trained to understand how the brain processes trauma was the greatest gift I could’ve been given.
Many of my friends and family made me feel as if I had to be happy and thankful to be alive every moment of every day after treatment. I felt guilty if I had a difficult day or second-guessed a decision I had made.
My therapist let me know it was OK to have bad days and that living through a cancer diagnosis wasn’t the thing that defined me.
A person going through cancer treatment lives that diagnosis the entire time they’re fighting the disease. Then, if you’re told you no longer have any evidence of disease, you can feel socially awkward. For me, it was as if my entire existence was different overnight. I constantly thought of my treatment days and how to live through side effects, so when those side effects didn’t exist anymore, I didn’t know how to go back to “normal.”
My therapist let me know that it was OK not to be the same person I was before I got sick. It was OK to create a new normal, and I was much happier for it.
Talking about cancer and the changes it presents shouldn’t be difficult. Therapy will provide you with the tools you need to get through treatment and reintegrate into life.
Picking up the phone and making that first appointment was the best decision I could’ve made during treatment, and I only wish I’d done it much sooner. The mental-health-related stigma I faced growing up didn’t define my future, and I’m so glad it didn’t.
Medically reviewed on May 11, 2023
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