How mental health can be affected after a cancer diagnosis - how do you cope? by Sam Reynolds

I have come to realise that being given a breast cancer diagnosis can be less about the physical challenge and more about the emotional resilience.  

Learning to navigate a way through cancer treatment, is a deeply personal journey. Everyone will have different experiences but there is a common thread that can be weaved through a cancer diagnosis. It is a thread representing the relationship we have with ourselves and how we manage our own emotional health. 

Mental health has become a huge global focus, especially after the pandemic, and through my work with and around cancer survivorship, as well as my own experiences, I have seen first hand the impact cancer and living life after cancer, can have on a person. I have recently been diagnosed with a fourth breast cancer in my clavicle and I can honestly say, this news has absolutely floored me and caused me to re assess how I need to manage my own mental health and resilience.  

Not only have I had to summon more strength from the deepest darkest depths, to physically get through the endless days of waiting for results, scans and follow up appointments, but I have had to manage how we communicate this with family and friends. There can be a pressure of responsibility and constant planning, self preservation and a learning to lean into a very raw vulnerability, that comes with these conversations, that can feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar. 

In addition, self reflection plays a massive role in how we mentally process a cancer diagnosis. There may be a sense of self blame, anger, resentment, denial and shame, not to mention fear, anxiety and loss of identity on different levels. Adversity, in any form, can trigger trauma that may have been experienced, and when these flight or fight responses are triggered, it can cause a tsunami of emotions, feelings and behaviours that can totally undermine any confidence or self assurance.  

All of this, I am told, is totally normal, but it has taken me fifteen years and a mere four cancer diagnosis’s to appreciate this! For me to be writing this blog for a community that is very dear to my heart, at this particular time in my own cancer journey is, I believe, no coincidence.  

As the fog descends after hearing those words, it feels as if the whole world has been turned upside down and inside out. To find any clarity and maintain a little control, in what feels like a time where there is no control at all, it can be useful to write. I have written letters to cancer, as well as my doctors and though many of them have never been sent, the action of writing them and putting words on a page, was hugely cathartic.  

Writing a list of all the people you love, those who make you feel good, those who might work in the medical field, or holistically, or with mental health and wellbeing can help us feel supported. Having a special tribe of people around us when we feel so vulnerable, can provide a framework to build on as we move through pre treatment, treatment, recovery and life after cancer.  

As well as this list, write a list of all the things you love to do, that make you feel good, anything from an evening bath to a day out in town.  

With both lists, consider which people can help with the things you love to do. Essentially it is the attention to the things you can control. This is your self care tribe and supply! There are no rules, no boundaries and if you don’t know someone, ask for recommendations or get online. Having something practical to do to keep grounded and connected is like an anchor and putting our own needs to the top of the priority list can set us up mentally, because we are proactively helping ourselves and putting things in place to support ourselves, in the way we want and need.  

For example, some ideas for a tribe might be partners, parents, best friends, consultants, oncologists, GP’s and breast care nurses on a medical level. For self care and wellbeing, it might make sense to consider favourite holistic therapies like reflexology, physio, counselling, nutritionists, beauticians (my eyebrows have never recovered from chemo!) and a personal trainer or yoga teacher etc. Adding a few friends that you can walk with or run with, a survivor support group, and extended family means these people can offer different support at different times, in their own way. They can help us feel physically stronger and emotionally more resilient. There is a trust that these people will help fill our cup with no judgment or agenda. 

There are different types of counselling, but this would always be a good first step. Speaking to someone outside of a close circle of friends and family is helpful for processing, finding some autonomy and ownership over an individuals cancer story. There may be a local cancer support centre offering counselling and other complimentary holistic therapies, or there may be someone specific who appeals. Talking can release so much. It can feel so overwhelming but verbalising feelings and fears can normalise and validate any insecurities and self doubt.  

While talking to a professional can be helpful, sharing with friends is also important. They might not always know what to say, but spending time with those who make you laugh and love you, who can escape with you for the day; shopping, lunching or on a spa day, is good for the soul. Taking care of ourselves and relaxing in a healing environment promotes endorphins and oxytocin that can increase serotonin to the brain, keeping positivity levels up as well as energy. Planning a specific treat after every chemo session or weekly for any courses of radiotherapy can be a great focus. 

In all honesty, there have been days where I haven’t been able to see the wood for the trees. There have been days where I felt like Alice in Wonderland crying an ocean of tears. There have been days where I have bounced out of bed ready to take it all on and days where I felt so grateful and blessed despite staring at myself with no hair and an arm covered in bruises. Every day will be different and what may have worked for one person, wont necessarily work for another.   

Our mental health is our compass and the needle will never be stationary. There is a natural rhythm to this genuine grieving process and it is only natural to feel anger, fear and loneliness and the myriad of emotions that can bubble to the surface, expectedly or unexpectedly.  Human experiences are threads, weaved through our lives as we go about learning, growing, reflecting, but what is important is that this thread of self care doesn’t break. It will fray, I know that much, but it shouldn’t break, because however frayed, loose and thin it becomes, we all have the strength to keep going and every thread counts in each tapestry, bringing colour, texture and a story of bravery and courage.  

In her past articles, Sam has discussed the link between mental health and gaining control through self care: 

"After having three breast cancer diagnoses spanning 12 years, from age 26, I have come to realise that being given a breast cancer diagnosis can be less about the physical challenge and more about the emotional resilience. It becomes essential to focus on the things you can control. Having something practical to do to keep grounded and connected is like an anchor. Putting our own needs to the top of the priority list can set us up mentally, because we are proactively helping ourselves and putting things in place to support ourselves, in the way we want and need. Receiving a Jennifer Young massage as a cancer patient felt as though I was doing all of the above.”

Sam has also discussed the importance of natural, specialist skincare in alleviating the side effects of treatment, such as tight, dry, itchy skin, brittle nails and sore scalps.

Sam can be found on instagram as @samspaces_safespacesaftercancer. Read more on her website: SafeSpaceAfterCancer.com