So You Have Breast Cancer... Now What? Some First Steps for the New Survivor After Diagnosis

 
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Those first few moments after hearing “you have cancer” are surreal.  It’s not a feeling that can be imagined by anyone until they find themselves in that exact same spot.  It is nearly impossible to process what your doctor is saying.  It’s like shock without the awe.

It’s devastating.  In fact, in a German study, it was found that over 80% of all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients exhibited some kind of PTSD symptoms between diagnosis and treatment.  It most definitely feels like you’ve been through a war where your body is your battleship and cancer cells are mutinous little bastards trying to take over.  But NEVER forget you are the Commander of your ship.  So what does every good Commander do?  Come up with a strategic plan.  Regaining some semblance of control in your life is a critical component to having the best outcome possible.

Step 1 - Start with YOU

Take time for yourself.  Processing the diagnosis can be overwhelming, but it also gives you an opportunity to reflect on your thoughts and feelings.  You’re going to be pissed, and sad and downright shitting your pants, but it’s important to find a way to deal with, and hopefully express, these feelings.  Writing in a journal may help you with emotions that come up as you go along this journey.  Check in with trusted friends.  Express yourself through art therapy (painting or drawing) or through music.  You may find that having an outlet of some kind may help you with the heavy burden with which you have been tasked.

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Be on the lookout for PTSD symptoms which can range from nightmares or flashbacks about your cancer experience to loss of appetite, emotional numbness, destructive behaviour, trouble sleeping, irritability, memory problems, concentration problems and more.  The difference between PTSD and normal stress is the duration of the symptoms which generally last longer than 30 days and can affect your daily life.  If you are experiencing what appear to be PTSD symptoms, speak with your doctor.  There is help out there.  

Get support.  While I recognize that running away or keeping your diagnosis secret maybe the first thing that pops into your head (it did for me!), this is not the time to be stoic.  From a health perspective, you need the support of your family and from your family’s perspective, they need to be allowed to support you. 

And don’t stop with your family; support can come in the form of support groups, close individuals, friends or even professional services, such as a cancer coach (shameless plug!).

Get active.  Being stuck in “fight or flight” is a dangerous place for your body to be.  Participating in activities that help lessen stress and soothe the stress response turn on healing hormones.  Modalities such as meditation, light exercise (always check with your doctor prior to starting an exercise regimen), nature walks, tapping and watching a good comedy to laugh your ass off are all good ways to chill and calm the hell down.

Step 2 - Re-take Control of Your Life

Control whatever is within your control.  I’ll say that again because it’s really important, control whatever is within your control.  This is a time where it seems like everything is spinning out of control.  There are lots of things that you will not be able to get a handle on.  For your own sanity, focus on what is within your control.  You’ll feel considerably better.  You will no doubt be ordered from appointment to appointment, but it doesn’t mean you can’t seize a little bit of control in your world for yourself.  Nutrition.  Exercise.  Sleep. Relaxation.  These are the things that fall within your sphere of control.  Get organized and make a plan as to how you can take control of these very critical components on your healing journey.  In fact, grab a notebook and keep track of your appointments, test results, discussions with your healthcare team, or whatever else comes up in relation to your diagnosis.  Be an active participant.

Taking control is a way of empowering yourself.

It is becoming apparent that empowerment can have a positive impact.  In fact, a study where a Patient Empowerment Program (PEP) was implemented, concluded that “the PEP intervention may ultimately empower participants within the medical encounter and improve health outcomes”. [1]

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Not taking control leaves you in a state of helplessness, and the stress of feeling helpless is crushing.  There are no two ways about it.  Experts claim that stress may be responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and disease and, in fact, “studies found a link between stress, tumour development and suppression of natural killer (NK) cells, which are actively involved in preventing metastasis and destroying small metastases”.[2]  An article in Psychology Today goes on to explain that, “[t]he way it does this is by triggering chemical reactions and flooding the body with cortisol that, among other things,… decreases white blood cells and NK cells (special cells that kill cancer), increases tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage.”[3]

Being an active participant in your treatment banishes helplessness, empowers you and gives you a little control over your battleship.   Don’t overlook this critical component.

Step 3 - Understand YOUR Diagnosis

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No doubt the first thing you will feel upon hearing those dreaded three little words, “you have cancer”, is fear.  Give yourself time to process the news, but when the shock starts to wear off, take a deep breath and get active.  It’s as scary as hell but take some time to learn about your particular diagnosis and the treatment options available to you.  Knowledge is power and, quite frankly, there’s enough fear in your life right now without adding fear of the unknown to the mix.  However, go at your own pace.  You don’t need to strive for a PhD in your disease, but a general understanding of what’s happening to you right now is empowering. If something freaks you out, back off.  Trust your instincts.

Step 4 - Form a Cancer Support Team

Build a cancer support team.  Having a team that combines both conventional and integrative care can certainly give you an edge.  If you have the best of both worlds, how can you go wrong?

It’s important to have the right practitioners on your team.  After all, if you had something wrong with your plumbing, would you call an electrician?  Probably not.  The same holds true when it comes to cancer.  If you’re looking for a practitioner who can provide nutritional advice, you probably won’t be seeking out a yogi.  However, if you are overcome with stress and need to unwind, then your local yogi will definitely be an avenue to explore. 

So, keeping that in mind, individuals to include on your cancer support team may include, but are not limited to:

1.     Your conventional oncologist;

2.     A naturopathic doctor who specializes in integrative cancer care (for an ND with this training, see the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors at https://www.cand.ca/ in Canada or the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians at https://www.aanp.com in the U.S., or the Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians at https://www.oncanp.org);

3.     A nutritionist or dietician;

4.     An acupuncturist;

5.     A massage therapist;

6.     A homeopath;

7.     A physiotherapist (with integrated lymphatic massage training is a bonus);

8.     A cancer coach; or

9.     A reflexologist.

Remember, this is a team.  Always keep your team members in the loop, especially your oncologist.  Full disclosure is how you create a smoothly operating cancer fighting machine. 

The Bottomline

Cancer is a terrifying, life-altering blow that can gut you; but it’s not a death sentence.  Your body is your battleship and you are still the Commander.  With the exception of some rogue mutineers, a.k.a., cancer cells, you’re still in charge and it’s time to take back what’s yours.  Cancer can take so much from us, but don’t let your life become a complete shit show.  So wipe those tears and blow that nose.  It’s time to get down to business kicking the crap out of this diagnosis.

If you’d like to know more, click here for a 30-minute Cancer Coaching Discovery Session and we can chat. In the meantime, I hope this gives you an idea about what’s next.  It’s a devastating diagnosis to deal with, but with the right support, you can deal with almost anything cancer has to throw at you.

As always, today’s choices create tomorrow’s results.

Best,

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[1]           Altshuler L, et al. Transforming the Patient Role to Achieve Better Outcomes Through a Patient Empowerment Program: A Randomized Wait-List Control Trial Protocol, JMIR Res Protoc 2016;5(2):e68, https://www.researchprotocols.org/2016/2/e68  (Accessed May 14, 2019)

[2]           Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008;15(4):9–18. (Accessed May 14, 2019)

[3]           Goliszek, Andrew, Ph.D., How Stress Affects the Immune System, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/how-the-mind-heals-the-body/201411/how-stress-affects-the-immune-system (Accessed May 14, 2019)


 

References:

Altshuler L, et al. Transforming the Patient Role to Achieve Better Outcomes Through a Patient Empowerment Program: A Randomized Wait-List Control Trial Protocol, JMIR Res Protoc 2016;5(2):e68 https://www.researchprotocols.org/2016/2/e68  (Accessed May 14, 2019)

BreastCancer.org. 80% of Women Have PTSD Symptoms After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, Breast Cancer, March 9, 2016 https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/many-women-have-ptsd-symptoms-after-dx (Accessed May 1, 2019)

Goliszek, Andrew, Ph.D., How Stress Affects the Immune System, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/how-the-mind-heals-the-body/201411/how-stress-affects-the-immune-system (Accessed May 14, 2019)

Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008;15(4):9–18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916/ (Accessed May 14, 2019)

Varinka Voigt et al.   assessed post-traumatic stress in patients with breast cancer during the first year after diagnosis in the prospective, longitudinal, controlled COGNICARES study. First published: 22 February 2016 https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.4102 (accessed April 23, 2019)