The Effects of Breast Cancer Survivorship on Mental Health

Many breast cancer survivors suffer from anxiety and worry that their cancer will return.

Hil Moss claims she was lounging around three years ago, casually watching television and relaxing when she felt a bump on her chest. She was 28 years old at the time, and her doctor informed her that she had nothing to be concerned about because she had no family history. They verified a diagnosis of breast cancer after a few more appointments, which they believe was caused by an ATM gene mutation they discovered.

Moss, a student at Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, and a cancer advocate considers herself a breast cancer survivor after three years and a 14-month treatment plan that included three months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and a tissue-based reconstruction, followed by hormone therapy.

Breast Cancer Survivorship

Survivorship is defined by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) as “lived with, through, and beyond cancer.” However, some patients who reach the “beyond cancer” stage say they were unprepared for the psychological toll this event would have on them.

Moss says she expected the treatment to be the most painful part of her experience when she was first diagnosed, but a fellow survivor cautioned her that it would be the months after she finished it that would be the toughest. Moss claims that the first six months of her recuperation period were more mentally taxing than anything she had gone through physically, including the amputation of both breasts.

Moss says, “That simply seems impossible to accept.” “You’re getting chemo, you’re sick, how could it get much worse?” But, in a way, it is. When you’re in therapy, you at least have a notion of what your day-to-day looks like, which might feel like a safety net at times.”

“When you’re separated from it, you’re forced to confront what’s happened.” “You have to accept your mortality,” Moss explains.

The Survival Rates of Breast Cancer Patients Are Increasing

Breast cancer is a “hopeful cancer,” according to Marleen Meyers, MD, a medical oncologist and the founding director of the Survivorship Program at Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health in New York City, because more and more patients diagnosed with breast cancer are surviving, but living through this experience “comes with a price,” she says.

Dr. Meyers says, “I’ve been an oncologist for a long period, and early on, we were just thrilled breast cancer survivorship programs if individuals survived.” “We didn’t consider their quality of life after they survived.” “The cancer treatment may be completed, but the cancer experience is far from over,” I often remark.

According to experts, the great majority of cancer patients experience mental health issues following treatment.

“There’s apprehension about the following stages, how they’ll feel, and how long it’ll take for them to get well,” Meyers adds. “The reality is that while you can offer someone an estimate, you can’t forecast the future.”

The Effects of Fear of Recurrence on Mental Health
Hill Moss, a breast cancer survivor, takes a walk.
Hil Moss, 31, has become a breast cancer survivor who is dedicated to establishing tools for breast cancer survivorship and surveillance.

Breast Cancer Survivorship

People who have been diagnosed with breast cancer believe that the dread of their disease returning is a major source of anxiety for many survivors. In a paper published in May 2021 in the journal Cancer Medicine, “scanxiety” is defined as the anxiety many patients have when undergoing imaging scans after cancer therapy.

Moss says she wonders if her cancer has returned whenever she feels any kind of pain in her body. She claims that when she walks into the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for a checkup with her doctor and smells the building where she had previously received 24 infusions, she becomes queasy right away.

“If you were treated in a specific area, you will have a Pavlovian response when you come into that building,” Moss explains. “Somethings just won’t go away, like feeling a random discomfort and worrying if it’s a recurrence, or getting blood drawn and flashing back to being in that chemo chair.”

Depression and Other Long-Term Cancer Treatment Side Effects

According to doctors and breast cancer patients, the medications used in many treatments can also impair mental health and mood. Breast cancer survivors were more likely than women who had not been diagnosed with cancer to develop several psychological disorders, including anxiety and sadness, according to a study published in PLOS Medicine in January 2021.

Hormone therapy, according to Meyers, is one treatment option whose impact on a patient’s psychological health is often underestimated, and it can contribute to depression.

The founder of the Impact One Breast Cancer Foundation, Elizabeth Ayers-Cluff, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36 years old. She claims she suffered from depression for more than a year after finishing her cancer treatment, which she attributes to the treatment itself.

“I genuinely believe that one thing that is not discussed enough is the commonality of chemical treatment that is given to you, and what it does to your mental stability,” says Ayers-Cluff. “I watched it deteriorate over time, therapy after treatment.” By the end of your voyage, I had been depressed for months.”

When Ayers-Cluff was rediagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018, she resolved not to let her depression return to where it had been almost a decade before.

“I just convinced myself that this time I was going to do everything I could for my mental health,” Ayers-Cluff explains.

Survivorship Resources and Advice

Most people control their anxiety through exercise, artwork, mindfulness, and meditation practice, and counseling, according to experts and breast cancer patients.

“The number one piece of advice I provide to those dealing with a cancer diagnosis is to get a therapist as soon as possible,” Moss adds.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) maintains a survival page with connections to various services for patients navigating life after cancer treatment.

Breast Cancer Survivorship

Though cancer treatment has an impact on mental health, Moss believes that the long-term effects can be seen in every aspect of a survivor’s life.

“What does it mean to go back to work or to continue working?” Should I tell you about my experiences if I have an interview? What does dating with scars entail? What effect has hormone therapy or my other treatments had on famous breast cancer survivors on my sexual health and capacity to enjoy a satisfying sex life?” Moss explains. “It’s kind of amazing how survival can pervade every aspect of your life, whether it’s a job, sex, personal life, or family life.”

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