Managing mental health alongside a breast cancer diagnosis
October is both Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Mental Health Month. Australia’s leading consumer breast cancer organisation Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) and Australia’s go-to specialist in cancer-related distress, popular podcaster, and Clinical Psychologist Dr Charlotte Tottman, have collaborated on 5 top tips for managing your mental health alongside a breast cancer diagnosis, assisting those affected by breast cancer to live well, their way.
Give yourself time to adjust
“After a cancer diagnosis, it’s normal to struggle through a period of adjustment as you come to terms with change,” said and Clinical Psychologist Dr Charlotte Tottman. “How you navigate these changes can depend on who you are as a person, your previous experience of adversity, and your resilience.”
Anxiety is worrying about the future and fearing things that haven’t happened. It is a normal response to a diagnosis and comes in many forms. “There are at least 12 different types of anxiety when it comes to a cancer diagnosis,” says Tottman. “An appropriate level of anxiety can be a good thing because it helps you to develop strategies to deal with the physical, practical, or emotional challenges you’re facing.”
Understand your anxiety to manage it
According to Tottman, learning to sit in the discomfort that comes with anxiety is a powerful skill to develop, along with an understanding that it is temporary and will pass. “Anxiety will peak and then start to dissipate, so once you recognise this and learn how to sit with it, you are back in the driver’s seat,” she said. “The anxiety may still happen, which is normal, but it will no longer destabilise you.”
Understanding what triggers your anxiety and anticipating what symptoms you might encounter can also help you manage it, because you know what to expect. “You might experience physiological symptoms, such as a racing heart, a sick feeling in your stomach, light-headedness, or tightness in your chest,” said Tottman.
Seek professional support
Cancer treatment itself can affect your normal functioning, so ask yourself whether you are struggling because of your mental health or physical health. According to Tottman, it is common for those with cancer to experience emotional isolation, where you feel like no one else understands what you’re going through. “Generally, I recommend seeking help if your anxiety or struggle to adjust is getting in the way of your functioning, impacting your sleep or relationships, or causing you a high level of distress,” she said. “Your GP – or therapist if you see one – can help assess where you are in terms of your struggle.”
Check in on ALL those affected
While someone may look outwardly well, they may still be struggling emotionally, so regularly checking in is important. “People tend to flock in the early stages of a diagnosis and then vanish down the track,” said Tottman. “That’s when the person who’s been diagnosed may feel the most isolated, so check in and ask how things are really going for them.”
It’s also important for carers to look after themselves. Tottman said carers often feel invisible or put their own needs last. “Remember, if you are exhausted or unable to continue caring, it affects you and the person you’re caring for,” she said.
Stay active and engaged
Moving helps your physical and mental health. “The silver bullet in all of this is exercise, so I recommend you stay mobile and active,” Tottman said.