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Battling Breast Cancer: When October means more to you than wearing pink

In honor of breast cancer awareness month, this week’s blog touches on those fighting that battle, loved ones by their side, and the importance of early detection and self-care. If you or someone you know has been affected by breast cancer, you know that the experience runs so much deeper than “just” sporting a bright pink T-shirt. You may feel very passionate and sensitive about the language people use to describe fighting such a battle. Maybe you get angry when you hear people say someone “lost” their fight with breast cancer, because you would never characterize someone as “losing.” The pink ribbon can be a source of solidarity for some and discomfort for others. Whatever the case may be, this month may be meaningful to you for a lot of different reasons. You may have strong and even conflicting emotions as you move through this month and are inundated with messages and images of the reality of breast cancer.

Cancer is such a scary word. Regardless if it is brain, lung, bone, breast or any other type the first time you hear it in relation to yourself or a loved one it can take your breath away. It can be hard not to think of the word cancer as synonymous with death sentence. Sometimes it is all too easy to let your mind run wild with fear; fear for yourself, fear for your loved ones, and fear for a challenging and uncertain future. If you find yourself caught up in that thought tornado of fear, you aren’t alone. Try to take a moment to re-center yourself and breathe. A moment to pull back from the fear and focus on the journey and the supports that you will need along the way. 

Importance of Detecting Breast Cancer Early 

Being diagnosed with breast cancer may be the furthest thing from your mind, unless you’ve been touched by it personally—with yourself, someone in your family, or a close friend having their lives changed by itYou may think that it only happens to other people or older people, but the truth is that it can happen to anyone at any age. Early detection is key, and regular screening is a great first step in catching it in those early stages.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation gives a great overview of where, when and how to perform your own breast exam to help with those goals of early detection.

If you’re in the shower:
  • Using the pads of your fingers, move around your entire breast in a circular pattern moving from the outside to the center, checking the entire breast and armpit area.
  • Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, or hardened knot. Notice any changes and get lumps evaluated by your healthcare provider.
If you’re in front of a mirror:
  • Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Next, raise your arms high overhead.
  • Look for any changes in the contour, any swelling, or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Left and right breasts will not exactly match—few women’s breasts do, so look for any dimpling, puckering, or changes, particularly on one side.
If you’re lying down:
  • When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently in small circular motions covering the entire breast area and armpit.
  • Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple; check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast. 

If you find a lump or an abnormality, talk to your doctor ASAP, but don’t panic. The NBCF reports that 80% of lumps are not cancerous, but you should still get it checked as soon as you can.

Receiving a diagnosis of Breast Cancer 

It can be all too easy to think that this only happens to other people and minimize signs or symptoms that you may be experiencing. After calling your doctor you will likely go in for an in-person exam and potentially a mammogram and other testing to rule in or out a diagnosis of breast cancer. After your doctor gets your result back they can walk you through what a diagnosis may mean for you and your situation. 

Common reactions to being diagnosed with breast cancer 
  • Shock, numbness, denial
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Wanting to isolate from people
  • Feeling less of a woman 

Your thoughts may race through hundreds of scenarios, filled with fear of the cancer spreading or having to lose part of, one, or both of your breasts may be weighing on your mind and what that might mean. It can be easy to feel as though your body is betraying you—how could this happen? Who will take you care of your family? What will happen to your job? How will you manage your bills if you can’t work?  

Changes in energy, mood, and appearance due to treatments are can be difficult to prepare for and go through. However, planning to take care of yourself as much as you can is where your energy should be. LETTING other people help you also becomes a huge part of the process. Cancer challenges our perceptions of ourselves. We have to completely change our levels of expectations and thoughts about what it means to be healthy, successful, and whole as a person.  Remember that cancer does not take away WHO you are, but it does challenge us to fully explore what that means to us. 

Supporting Someone with Breast Cancer 

If you know someone who is fighting breast cancer, or who is in remission, don’t assume that everyone with breast cancer has the same experience. Find out what it means to them and how they would like to be supported. Oftentimes cancer can seem like the elephant in the room. It can be relieving when someone fighting cancer doesn’t have to bring up the topic themselves. If you can sit with your own fear and discomfort to be there enough to hold space for someone who is struggling with cancer, they will likely appreciate it. A good step is checking in with how their doing and asking them if they would like to talk about their experience. If not, you might ask if there is anything that you can do for them or their familyTheir energy levels are likely down, and they may not be able to ask for what they need as they are going through the process. Offering specific ways to help them may make it easier to accept and get the necessary help they need at that time. 

Ways to Support Others Going through Breast Cancer  
  • Cooking them a meal (if you are part of a church group or larger group of friends, consider making a schedule of who will bring meals and on which days to prevent overload of too much at one time)
  • Visiting them in the hospital or at home (if they want you to)
  • Running errands for them
  • Offering to drive them to doctor’s appointments
  • Doing household chores for them
  • Checking up on them via text/phone call
  • Keep inviting them places even if they often say no
  • Just hanging out with them like normal, and not talking about their struggles
  • Offering to bring a movie over and sit and watch it with them 
Breast Cancer in Men 

When you think of breast cancer, you might readily think of women, but men can and do get breast cancer too! It is less likely to occur in men, but it still happens. Mortality may actually be greater in men because they are less aware of breast cancer than women and less likely to notice a lump or to assume that a lump could be cancerous. Not to mention, there can be a lot of stigma that comes with being diagnosed with breast cancer as a male, because it is normally conceptualized as a woman’s disease. Men might feel emasculated or that something is wrong with them, that if they were somehow different, they would not have received this diagnosis. It is important to challenge these perceptions and to be as supportive of male friends/family with breast cancer and develop an understanding of where they are at emotionally in this process.

Have You Lost Someone? 

If you’ve lost someone who has fought breast cancer, this month may be particularly painfulYou might not want to see the pink ribbons all over the place and hear of other peoples success stories or stories of remission, because that hasn’t been your experience. You may end up being angry and not wanting to participate in the various walks and community functions. That’s ok. Do what you can to take care of yourself, understanding that everyones experiences are different. That others may need to fundraisers, commercials and success stories to give them strength in fighting their journeyThat does not minimize or discount your pain. A lot of people have good intentions and are unaware of how this may be impacting you. Its ok to share your loss and to let others know why this month is hard for you. This may give the extra layer of support that you need.  

Seeking Help 

It’s much harder to go through cancer alone, feeling like no one understands you. Sometimes you have to fight hard not only against cancer, but against becoming isolated, loss of identity and physical changes in yourself. One good way to do this is to join a support group of people who have been where you are, or people who are currently struggling as well. You may also benefit from seeking individual or family counseling to help you sort through difficult thoughts and emotions, whether you are the one with a diagnosis, or you are supporting someone with cancerHere is some more information about breast cancer as well as women’s experiences.  

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services