Breast Cancer Research Centre - WA

Managing Initial Diagnosis – the spectrum of psychological distress

‘Managing Initial Diagnosis – the spectrum of psychological distress’ by Clinical Psychologist Mary Scott

For most people a cancer diagnosis is unexpected and unwanted. There can be feelings of shock and anxiety. Some of the psychological responses that occur soon after diagnosis are described below:

Fear of the unknown
This is greatest between diagnosis and getting a treatment plan. There have been significant advances in breast cancer treatment in recent years, making it more effective and with fewer side effects. Once people have a plan and start treatment, they often feel a sense of relief.

I need to care for others
If you have caring or managerial roles, your first thoughts might be about how the illness will affect those who depend on you. You may have concerns about how to tell family members, including children. Most people cope better than expected and will find sources of support for themselves. However, if you are concerned, a session with our Clinical Psychologist can reduce your anxiety and assist you to support yourself as well as others.

Why me?
You may want to know what caused this so that you can make sense of it and prevent it from happening again. Only about 10% of women have a known genetic mutation that puts them at high risk for breast cancer (e.g. BRCA 1 or 2). Researchers are working to discover other genetic and environmental causes but the triggers for cancer are extremely complex. What we do know is that the biggest risk factors for breast cancer are being female and getting older.

Determination to “beat it”
Some women are determined to stay positive and powerful. They tend to mobilise their own resources and encourage others to support them in their determination. When they do feel down, they seek support from those they trust. Coping with the emotional reactions of others Sometimes it can feel very supportive to have a good cry with a close friend. At other times, the behaviour of others might feel intrusive or draining. A helpful role for someone you trust is to be a “gate keeper” to update friends and to buffer you from people who might not be helpful at this time.

Coping with Dr. Google and others’ opinions about treatment
Your breast cancer diagnosis is unique to you. Not only is breast cancer different to other kinds of cancer, there are many different subtypes of breast cancer which require different treatments to obtain the best possible result. So we advise “don’t google,” because you are likely to read incorrect information. Once you’ve read something incorrect which distresses you, it is hard to “unread”. Your treating team can provide the best advice to treat the specific cancer found in your body, taking into account your overall health and psychosocial situation.

Feeling alone
For women who don’t have a supportive partner, going through a stressful time can be hard. It can be even harder if you are coping with grief from a recent bereavement or relationship breakdown. While some people have the urge to withdraw, try to be open to supportive connections as they often come from the people you’d least expect.

I’d like more information and support
At BCRC-WA, we provide a range of free support options and a specialised breast cancer clinical psychology service. Please ask our staff for more information.

Final words of encouragement
As best you can, try to keep some balance in your life by keeping up activities and connections that are not about cancer.

It can be comforting to keep in mind the community of people who have experienced and managed cancer treatment before you. Even if you’ve never met them, you can imagine that they know what you are facing, they’ve gained wisdom and friendship along the way and they wish you well.

Mary Scott
BCRC-WA Clinical Psychologist