8 Tips for Coping After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

October 09, 2018 7:00 AM

Balancing family life and cancer care can be a challenge. A Michigan Medicine counselor offers advice for navigating the process, from mental health to finances.

For any woman, a breast cancer diagnosis can incite a flurry of appointments and emotions.

For some women with families, important details of treatment and recovery may compete with the chaos of daily life.

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“They might be more worried about the kids being picked up at school than their tumor,” says Donna Murphy, LMSW, director of patient and family support services at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. “They’re seeking ways to manage and make sense of it all.”

Those who are childless or live alone also face challenges. A patient with low energy could struggle to drive herself to a doctor’s appointment or the grocery store but hesitate to ask for help, Murphy notes.

Coping strategies to balance both types of concerns can help not only the patient but her family and loved ones as well.   

And her cancer team can extend beyond doctors and nurses: Specialists in social work, spiritual care, psychology, art therapy, finance and other disciplines may play key roles. 

Murphy offered advice for all women:

What to do after a breast cancer diagnosis

1. Be informed

Knowing basic facts about breast cancer and preparing questions before an appointment is crucial.

“There’s a mysterious unknown that can be very frightening,” Murphy says. “But the more a patient feels self-determined and educated about her cancer, the more she can move forward with a feeling of some control.”

A proactive approach may help a patient better anticipate what to expect during her treatment and beyond, thus reducing anxiety.

2. Be transparent

A common concern that Murphy hears: How do I tell my children? It’s key to tailor the news based on age and circumstances.

“The preparation is really around knowing each kid and how they handle difficult information,” she says, adding that “little ones know more than we give them credit for.”

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Dispense information as you get it in “bite-sized” pieces; calmly explain what could occur and how day-to-day routines may change during treatment.

3. Be receptive

Whether it’s driving the kids to soccer practice, mowing the lawn or preparing meals for the week, help from others can lighten your load during a stressful time.

Murphy recommends designating a representative to field and delegate the requests, as friends and loved ones afraid of bothering the family may hesitate otherwise.

He or she can also serve as a spokesperson to share updates from the patient and forward messages from well-wishers.

4. Be rested

Chemotherapy and radiation can cause fatigue, nausea and pain, among other side effectsKnow that your body may have reduced capacity and react accordingly when needed. Sleep, after all, is a critical part of self-care.

Says Murphy: “Right-size your expectations of physical activity and give yourself permission to change plans.”

A spouse or sibling might videotape a child’s dance recital and host an at-home showing afterward, for instance.

5. Be yourself

When possible, pursue activities that have always lifted your mood (such as a book club or church group) and keep even small elements of past normalcy in the family schedule.

“It’s about figuring out how a mom can still be a mom,” Murphy says. “If reading is all I can handle, that means we’re all going to sit down at 9 o’clock and enjoy our favorite book.”

Sustaining your prior routine as much as possible is helpful while healing, she adds.

6. Be creative

A paintbrush or piano is a powerful aid. “Engaging in the healing arts really connects with the brain’s dopamine and pleasure center,” Murphy says.

Rogel Cancer Center patients can access art and music therapy at no cost; pursuits may include group classes or curating recorded music to play at chemotherapy appointments.

Also available: Guided imagery, in which patients learn to develop a script of comforting and affirming words.  

7. Be inquisitive

Cancer treatment can be costly. Rogel’s financial counselors are trained to help with the stress from navigating insurance and transportation to other unexpected expenses.

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“We often have the example of someone doing well, with solid insurance, but at a certain point the twists and turns of the care might be creating a strain,” Murphy says.

“We have a way to step in at any point to identify what some of those needs might be and try to plan for them.”

8. Be unguarded

Even with a support system, some cancer patients may find the mental strain of cancer hard to handle. That’s when a counselor can be crucial.

“The value of talk therapy is evidence-based,” Murphy says. “Many times, the worries and concerns in your head can be eased when you speak them out loud with validation and normalization.”

If cancer-related anxiety or interrupted sleep persist, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication to help.

Learn about resources via the Rogel Cancer Center's Patient and Family Support Services Program or call the Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.