For breast cancer patients, the goal of returning to “normal life” can be a powerful motivating force. But even long after the healing and recovery process is over, getting back to a regular routine can pose challenges that many women don’t anticipate.
Patients can be so focused on the trauma of diagnosis, surgery and getting better, reality doesn’t really sink in until everything calms down — and that’s perfectly normal, said Ruby Bañuelos Calhoun, a clinical social worker in the Department of Supportive Care Medicine
at City of Hope.
“After recovery from breast cancer it’s natural to experience emotions like grief,” she said. “You’ve been through something traumatic that impacted your body. Some women feel guilty because they think they should be happy they survived, or insecure because they’re grieving over their appearance. Every patient’s situation is different.”
When it’s time to get back to your normal routine, it’s important to adjust to your reality, accept it and, most of all, “be kind to yourself,” Calhoun said.
Easier said than done, but there are many tools and resources that can help you ease back into the world and make your new life better than ever.
Getting your Groove Back
A mastectomy can have a huge impact on a woman’s body image and sex life. Some fear their partner won’t accept the changes; others are worried they’ll never find a partner who’ll accept them, Calhoun said. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Although many women find it difficult to talk about sex, it’s important to open up to someone about your feelings and fears.
“Just talking to someone about sexual issues can be a big help. It’s healthy to have open communication, even if you’re not comfortable talking with your partner or physician. Some women feel more comfortable talking with a nurse or social worker.”
Reconstructive surgery can be helpful for a survivor’s sex life and self-esteem. In some cases it’s done immediately after a mastectomy, but others require waiting a year or more. City of Hope’s reconstructive procedures are normally covered by insurance, and when they’re not, patients are connected to community resources that can provide assistance.
Life after breast cancer also provides an opportunity to adopt a more nutritious diet and start a regular exercise regimen. This can improve your health, appearance, self-esteem and overall well-being.
A Positive Outlook
It’s natural for cancer survivors to sometimes feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts, even when life is going well, Calhoun said. Fear of a recurrence and lingering trauma over their battle are common, but the key is to simply acknowledge these thoughts, refocus and let them go.
“Meditation is a great tool for coping,” she said. “It’s a way to quiet the mind and focus entirely on the present moment without looking ahead or dwelling on the past. And when a negative thought comes to mind, you simply recognize it for what it is — just a thought that will drift away as easily as it came.”
For more serious emotional issues, seeing a therapist or attending a support group can help a great deal. City of Hope offers a wide range of counseling services, along with patient navigators and social workers who can offer support and connect survivors with needed resources.
Perhaps the best therapy of all is to focus on what brings you the most joy in life, whether that’s family, spirituality or hobbies such as painting, Calhoun said. In any case, reaching out for help and not isolating yourself is key.
“I’m always available to connect with patients even after they are fully treated,” she said. “There’s never a point where my role is over as long as someone needs help finding resources to deal with physical or emotional issues — or just to talk.”
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