Breast Cancer & Mental Health: A Journey to Coping

*WARNING* Graphic Images Below!!!

By: Christine Weimer

The stress that comes along with a cancer diagnosis is one I imagine cannot be rationalized by anyone who has never been a patient of the disease. According to The National Cancer Institute, one in three people who are diagnosed with cancer will experience mental distress. What’s more, is that this is most common in breast cancer patients- making up 42% of that statistic. 45% percent of cancer survivors will develop some form of anxiety or PTSD.  

I don’t mean to throw statistics so boldly in your face, but when informed of these numbers I was stunned- to say the least. More often than not, we associate cancer with the physical strain it puts on one’s health, not necessarily the emotional one. But in nursing my own mother during her bout with breast cancer that lead to a double mastectomy back in 2012, I discovered that there was nothing my mother could not handle in terms of the physical compromises she had to make. But the emotional ones are some I don’t believe will ever fully heal.

Heike with her daughter and friend

I got to talking to a friend of mine, Heike Rice, who was diagnosed with ductal and lobular carcinomas of the breast just before Christmas of 2018. A friend of hers had asked if she could practice her ultrasound training on Heike, only to find something that alarmed her. She calls the experience a case of divine intervention, because within in a month, Heike was told her cancer was within the right breast. After receiving a mastectomy with lymph node removal, she was informed there were two measurable cancer cells there too. The prognosis would be that after a mastectomy and reconstruction of the right breast, along with radiation to hopefully kill possible undetected cells, that Heike would be able to enter remission with a low chance of recurrence.

I am grateful to say that on October 11th of this year, Heike was told that there is no evidence of disease any longer, so we will continue to hope for positive news hereon out. But just because she is not actively dealing with physical affects of her diagnosis, it does not mean that the mental effects of breast cancer are not still a part of her every day life.

Heike says, “When they first said the c-word, I felt like somebody dropped a house on me. I couldn’t breathe.” A diagnosis like this is scary because of the dozens of possible outcomes, so to react in fear is likely. But what hit her hardest was the realization she had after surgery and radiation. “This is not a one-and-done deal,” she began. “When my oncologist said I needed to see him for the next 10 years, and that I needed to take medicine for at least five years, it sank in that this was long term- that it would always be a part of my story.”

Surgery Day

Those words struck me, because it made me realize that recovery from cancer is not just about clear scans and negative test results. There’s a lasting worry hanging over heads of those who may never feel as though they’ve rid themselves of the disease. “Little things, like checking the box at the doctor’s office that I had cancer, made me weepy,” Heike says, regarding breast cancer’s after-affects.

“Sadly, just because it looks clear right now, it doesn’t mean it is. It takes years, sometimes, for cancer cells to amount to a measurable tumor or mass,” Heike expressed to me. “I am not quite sure how to fight something that might, or might not, happen,” she said. If there is one thing- cancer or not- we can all understand, it is the lingering fear of the unknown. As she expresses, it is difficult to cope with that which we cannot determine an outcome for.

And she noticed, people treat her “differently” when she tells them she is a cancer survivor- which didn’t help her emotional health. Survivors don’t want to be looked at with pity. It only places a warning label on their foreheads to let the world know you think they’re more fragile than the rest of us. Heike says, “Stop apologizing for something none of us have control over to begin with. I guess, people don’t really know how to deal with the thing you are going through, so they try platitudes. When you have cancer- or experience any kind of trauma- you don’t want to hear platitudes.”

Heike says this was taken after the mastectomy.
For her, it was the moment “it all hit her.”

Heike has been tackling the after-affects of breast cancer just as she has done any other hardship she has faced, according to her. “I need a little time to work through it, but then I fight.” However, she admits that there are questions that will always invade the forefront of her mind at times. “Will it come back? Should I have had my other breast removed as a precaution? Should I have implanted? WHAT IF IT COMES BACK?” Are just some of worries associated with trying to move on with her life. But she says she is grateful for her sense of humor. Lots of humor.

Though I believe it is important for breast cancer patients/survivors to seek therapy or find a support group, Heike said she knew she had the tools she needed to cope with her anxieties on her own.  But, she found an alternate way of coping and fighting through, and it’s called: Operation Frankenboob. Heike says, “The most important thing for me is to survive. And while I survive, to share my fight with everybody.”

Operation Frankenboob’s official logo. Designed by: Fayth Crozier

Operation Frankenboob is a personal movement Heike began on her Facebook page. She became transparent to those who would listen and began documenting her journey with them. For her, it made something that could be potentially deadly into something that she could approach with a bit of humor. Plus, it gave the disease a face that was bigger than her own. “I did not want to be defined by this devil’s disease, and by having Frankenboob, there was something people found funny yet worth listening to,” Heike says about her social media venture.

Heike would like to think that sharing her journey and having this experience with breast cancer has attributed to some forms of growth in her life. “I live life more intentionally. I think it’s because this could have been my end- and it wasn’t,” she says. It warms my heart to know she found some light amidst her darkness. She believes she was put through this journey to help others on their journey. Plus, she says it definitely helped her be less body-aware. “Two years ago you wouldn’t have caught me putting up a selfie of my whole body. Since cancer, I even shared boob pics,” she expresses, lightheartedly. She says her husband Don made a joke that the whole internet knows what her boobs look like. Her response: “And I don’t care.”

I asked Heike what she would tell women like her, and she says the most important thing is to never give up, no matter what doctors tell you. “Explore your options, do your research. Change doctors if you don’t think they’re listening to you,” she says. But aside from that, she says having a stable support system is key. “Whether it is a couple of good friends or family, or a case worker, lean on your support system,” is her advice to all. But she also adds that it will be useful to find someone who also is a survivor. “They will get the ups and downs- the fears,” she says. AND DON’T FORGET TO GET YOUR MAMMOGRAMS!

To honor Operation Frankenboob, as well as other breast cancer patients, Heike has decided to create a crochet pillow design with the Frankenboob logo that she may gift to the women at the cancer center she was treated in. It is her way of giving back, and spreading positivity.

Heike and Husband, Don

Heike is a Military wife, and mother of four grown children- with a grandbaby on the way. She lives in Moriarty, New Mexico and has a passion for reading and crocheting. I can speak on Heike’s talent in crochet, as I have been a customer of hers for many years. She says that the skill has been a great coping mechanism for her. You can find more of her designs through her business page here. You can also follow Heike on social media here, so that you may connect to her as well.

If you are a breast cancer survivor, or patient, may the one thing you take away from this article be that you are not alone to the emotional roller-coaster that comes along with diagnosis. It is so important to raise awareness about the mental and emotional trauma that comes along with this disease, because our minds are a powerful tool. The stronger our minds, the stronger our bodies!

@beacolorfulyou

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