Taking Care of Yourself or a Loved One After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can come with a range of emotions. You might feel surprise, fear, anxiety, and even relief after determining a course of treatment. Friends and family usually try to be supportive, but there is no “one size fits all” way to support someone going through a new health diagnosis. Though breast cancer seems rather ubiquitous, each new diagnosis is personal. Therapists at Council for Relationships are skilled at helping individuals, couples and families talk about the complex feelings that come with a diagnosis. Here are five things to keep in mind as you, or a loved one, start on the cancer journey:

1. There is no right way to be a patient (or person who HAD breast cancer)
Some people make their breast cancer status a part of their identity and others consider it something that happened to them. Both ways of integrating cancer are right, as are any response in between. There is no right way to be a patient. The language around cancer usually evokes warfare – fighter, survivor, warrior. Some days you might connect with that language and other times you might not. You can change the way you associate with the language and the experience at any time. You don’t owe anyone a particular way of being; emotional healing is nonlinear. Some days will be harder than others will and it’s ok to feel sad or anxious even if “there’s no reason” to be. You are in charge of how much you share about your health, and with whom.

2. There are many different types of breast cancer (and treatments)
Treatment becomes more specialized as diagnostics improve. The treatment your coworker’s aunt had will not necessarily be what is appropriate for you. It can be overwhelming to hear about other people’s experiences and outcomes even if they mean well. The decisions you make about your care are between you and your care team. Most people have an association with breast cancer, and it can inform the way they respond to news of someone’s diagnosis (or their own). This means that fear and anxiety might interfere with someone’s ability to be present in the way you need, or that your associations could make it difficult to think about your experiences as separate from what you’ve seen previously. Try to set boundaries around other people’s expectations, particularly when they do not know the specifics of your treatment plan.

3. Be gentle with yourself
Try to identify and honor your needs. You might welcome being surrounded by loved ones or you might value time to yourself. Ask for support and accept help when it’s offered. Make a list of ways people can help, like; creating a meal train, caring for pets, childcare, doing housework, or other tasks that will alleviate the burden. Designate a friend or partner to be the point person to send out health updates and needs when they arise. Recognize that after treatment is finished, follow up visits can be triggering. Take care to prepare for feelings of anxiety that can be stirred up. Mindfulness practices, listening to comforting playlists in waiting rooms, and bringing a trusted loved one with you to your appointments can help.

4. Sexuality can be impacted
Reconnecting with your body after breast cancer can take time. Breast cancer can change your relationship with your body and sexuality. Sexual desire can be impacted by treatment and is something that should be discussed with your medical professionals. Associations to your breasts might change from a source of pleasure to a source of anxiety or pain. Sex might require more communication with your partner to talk about what feels comfortable and pleasurable. There are ways to reconnect with your body after treatment and for a partner to help establish safety and pleasure. Sex therapy can be a very useful tool to explore different ways to renew sexuality and intimacy after breast cancer.

5. Any gender can get breast cancer
While breast cancer is usually associated with women and women’s imagery, any gender can get breast cancer. For non-binary, Trans, and gender non-conforming people, being treated for breast cancer can be triggering. It is important to feel seen and understood by the medical support staff where you receive care. Sharing concerns might result in easy changes that could make you feel more comfortable.

Abby Bronstein, MSW, MFT, LCSW, has experience working with people who had breast cancer and other chronic illnesses. She sees clients at our Blue Bell office and virtually. To request an appointment, email her at abronstein@councilforrelationships.org or call her at 215-382-6680 ext.