Each year 185,000 women in this country learn that they have breast cancer. Because less than a quarter of them have genetic or other known risk factors, the diagnosis often comes as a devastating surprise. The emotional turmoil that results can affect women’s physical health as well as their psychological well-being. This question-and-answer fact sheet explains how psychological treatment can help these women harness the healing powers of their own minds.
What impact does a breast cancer diagnosis have on psychological well-being?
Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer can be one of the most distressing events women ever experience. And women may not know where to turn for help.
Distress typically continues even after the initial shock of diagnosis has passed. As women begin what is often a lengthy treatment process, they may find themselves faced with new problems. They may find their personal relationships in turmoil, for instance. They may feel tired all the time. They may be very worried about their symptoms, treatment and mortality. They may face discrimination from employers or insurance companies. Factors like these can contribute to chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
Why is it important to seek psychological help?
Feeling overwhelmed is a perfectly normal response to a breast cancer diagnosis. But negative emotions can cause women to stop doing things that are good for them and start doing things that are bad for anyone but especially worrisome for those with a serious disease. Women with breast cancer may start eating poorly, for instance, eating fewer meals and choosing foods of lower nutritional value. They may cut back on their exercise. They may have trouble getting a good night’s sleep. And they may withdraw from family and friends. At the same time, these women may use alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine or other drugs in an attempt to soothe themselves.
A breast cancer diagnosis can also lead to more severe problems. Researchers estimate that anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of cancer patients experience depressive symptoms, which can make it more difficult for women to adjust, participate optimally in treatment activities and take advantage of whatever sources of social support are available. Some women become so disheartened by the ordeal of having cancer that they refuse to undergo surgery or simply stop going to radiation or chemotherapy appointments. As a result, they may get even sicker. In fact, studies show that missing as few as 15 percent of chemotherapy appointments results in significantly poorer outcomes.
How can psychological treatment help women adjust?