Breast Cancer: How Does It Affect Your Mental Health?

Contributed by: Jaime Yeo

At Breast Cancer Foundation’s ‘Members Pink Talk’, Parkway Cancer Centre counsellor Jaime Yeo shared some strategies to navigate the impact of breast cancer—the top cancer among women in Singapore.

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis and undergoing breast cancer treatment are major events that can have a significant impact on women. Many women with breast cancer may struggle with mental health issues, even after completing treatment.

To understand the impact of breast cancer on women’s mental health, there is a need to first understand the physical impact of breast cancer treatment on the body. Undergoing a mastectomy or going through treatment with side effects such as hair loss, weight changes, medical menopause, and fertility issues can have an emotional, psychological, and social impact on women’s lives. This can affect:

  • Quality of life
  • Body image and self-esteem
  • Sense of self
  • Family planning
  • Relationships and intimacy

Or result in:

  • Grief and loss
  • Stress
  • Mood swings
  • Fear of cancer recurrence
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Understanding that the body can affect the mind can help us appreciate why someone with cancer may struggle not just physically, but emotionally, psychologically, and socially as well.

Breast cancer and change

Going through a cancer journey can bring about many changes, from tangible and intangible losses to learning and experiencing various emotions.

Changes in the body because of treatment may alter women’s outward appearances and certain physical functions such as sexuality and fertility. In addition, societal attitudes and beliefs towards women’s bodies and appearances can add pressure on how women perceive their physical appearance, causing physical distress, disturbance of one’s body image and dissatisfaction with one’s self. Many breast cancer survivors struggle with feeling good and confident about their bodies, affecting their mental health and concept of self i.e. what we believe about ourselves and how others perceive our identity, self-esteem, and the social roles we play.

6 suggestions for better mental health and hope

Fortunately, there is always hope regardless of the severity of the disease, as hope is multidimensional. Living with hope can help women with breast cancer—even those in advanced stages—manage their mental health and contribute to better physical health and their concept of self.

The following suggestions are steps that individuals can take to better manage their mental health and begin living life with renewed hope:

  1. Acknowledge your losses

    Negative coping strategies such as denial and avoidance can adversely affect our physical health, mood, and quality of life. By identifying our losses and acknowledging the feelings that come with them (e.g. shock, anger, grief), we can give a name to what we value and better articulate what we are experiencing.

  2. Attend to your emotions

    Many of us can get uncomfortable with our emotions because of what society has taught us. But contrary to common societal beliefs, emotions are a natural part of who we are and tell us what is important to us.

    Attending to our emotions begins with recognising and describing what we feel, asking ourselves where our emotions are coming from, and regulating them by talking to someone, going for a walk, or meditating, and more.

  3. Nurture your relationships and connections

    Relationships and social support are good protective factors against stressful events and they contribute to hope via a connection beyond the self. At the same time, we need to recognise that there is room for fluidity and boundaries in relationships and that we often have the power to choose and seek out relationships that are helpful for us.

  4. Take care of your body

    Regular exercise is associated with higher self-esteem, mood, and psychological well-being. Studies show that breast cancer survivors with more active lifestyles had a more positive attitude towards their physical condition and sexual attractiveness, and had less confusion, fatigue, and depression.

    Additionally, exercise helps us to feel more confident and in control. Besides cardiovascular exercise, dance and movement therapies have also been shown to improve mental health and quality of life.

  5. Live in the present

    It is important to not allow the past or the future to rob us of the present moment. We can attempt to live in the present by practising daily gratitude. Listing the things you are grateful for every day can lead to higher levels of daily psychological functioning, greater perceived support, and adaptive coping strategies.

  6. Create meaning and hope

    Creating meaning and hope in our lives begins with recognising the multifaceted nature of hope, re-evaluating what is personally significant to you, and practising self-compassion by accepting yourself and showing yourself kindness when you experience suffering. Doing this can make way for post-traumatic growth, which could include increasing our appreciation of life, fostering meaningful relationships, developing our personal strengths, and discovering new possibilities in life.

Changes as a result of cancer treatment may lead to experiences of loss, learning, gain, and different emotions. Fortunately, we can live with hope by recognising that hope is multifaceted, acknowledging the painful parts of our experiences, taking care of our bodies and emotions, practising gratitude and self-compassion, and actively seeking out new meaning in our lives.

POSTED IN Exercise, Life after Cancer, Psychological Health
TAGS breast cancer
READ MORE ABOUT Breast Cancer
PUBLISHED 01 OCTOBER 2023