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Head strong: Five tips for coping with a breast cancer diagnosis.

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ve probably also been hit with a wave of emotions. “It’s not uncommon to experience a roller coaster of emotions following a diagnosis, including shock, guilt, anxiety and isolation,” says Kate Mlodzik, Peer Support & Information Specialist at the Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers and the Breast Centre at Women’s College Hospital.

As you discuss treatment options with your doctor, remember that taking care of your mental health could also help you as you move through the process. Consider these five tips for taking care of your mental health after a breast cancer diagnosis.

  1. Get the facts.

When you first hear that you have cancer, you may feel shocked and overwhelmed. “Some people compare their initial reaction to hitting a brick wall,” says Mlodzik. “After you hear the words ‘you have cancer,’ you may not hear much else of what your physician has to tell you.” That said, try to gather as much information about your cancer diagnosis as you need in order to come up with your treatment plan. Write down any questions and bring them to your appointments. “Knowledge is power,” says Mlodzik. “For many people, having information about their diagnosis can help regain a sense of control and equip them to tackle what lies ahead.”

This is also where your support system comes in – bring a loved one to your appointments. Have them take notes and ask questions. As the patient, it may be difficult to take everything in or you may only pick up on the worst bits of news and tune out anything positive. Having another set of ears present will ensure you leave your appointments informed.

  1. Find a distraction.

Keep yourself busy during the anxiety-inducing limbo phase when you may be in between appointments or waiting for results or testing. “Lean on the things that brought you joy and strength prior to your diagnosis,” says Mlodzik. Whatever comforted you before your cancer diagnosis – a good book, TV show, yoga or meditation – is likely to help you keep your head above water.

  1. Exercise.

If you’re able to, exercise benefits your physical and mental well-being. It can improve your energy, lift your mood and offer piece of mind. “Physical activity also helps build a strong base for any surgery and treatments to come,” adds Mlodzik.

  1. Find support.

You may feel completely alone after being diagnosed with breast cancer. “Even if you have friends and family around, you may feel isolated if these people can’t relate,” says Mlodzik. Know that there are people you can connect with who’ve been through this and can share experiences and insight. Mlodzik suggests online support communities (cancerconnection.ca) and telephone peer support (match.cancer.ca) through the Canadian Cancer Society.

  1. Connect with your care team.

After you finish treatment, your anxiety may increase, especially around fears of recurrence. It’s important to find healthy ways to cope. For Mlodzik, maintaining a connection with her health-care team eased anxiety after she went through breast cancer treatment. It meant she got ahead of her fear and whenever she has a health scare she has someone to turn to. The health professionals who guided you through your cancer treatment are still available to support you if you need them, and most will tell you to call them if you have any questions or concerns. They can also help connect you to other professionals who are skilled in helping patients adjust to life after treatment.

5 Tips in diagram form

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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital