Emotional Distress Related to Diagnosis of Cancer in Women (Julie’s* story)

Julie has always been the person that everyone counted on in her family. As a mother, wife, daughter and friend she always seemed to take care of everyone around her. Life took a sudden change when she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months ago. How could she have cancer with no family history of breast cancer and at her young age? Julie was faced with the diagnosis of an invasive tumor for which she underwent chemotherapy and a mastectomy. The doctors were very reassuring about her prognosis and Julie took on the attitude of a warrior facing a battle. She found that she was constantly reassuring her family and friends that everything was going to be fine. However, late at night she would wake up afraid of the “what ifs”. What if I never see my youngest daughter say her first words? What if I never go to my children’s weddings? Who will take care of my children and my family?  She could not share these fears with her husband or mother because she did not want to worry them. When she tried to talk to her friends about her fears and concerns, they looked uncomfortable and would say “stop that talk, your going to be fine.” Julie began feeling alone and isolated. Her husband still expected her to arrange the car pools for the children and help with the homework. He acted as if nothing happened. Julie found that she could never relax and she would cry at any moment when she was left alone. When she looked in the mirror, she could not recognize herself anymore. She could only see the reflection of the surgical scars, bald head and absence of eyelashes of a cancer patient. Julie was having difficulty getting up in the morning and spending time with her husband or children. She constantly felt guilty about her being a burden on everyone and she did not know how to ask for help. Julie had resisted going to the support groups at the cancer center because she felt she did not need that kind of help. She met a woman in the waiting room at her doctor’s office who mentioned that she was doing much better since she started seeing a therapist and a support group. The woman gave Julie the number of her therapist and invited her to join her at the next group therapy. The group therapy helped Julie. She quickly realized that her feelings were very common and that she was not alone. She learned that it was also helpful for her husband and her mother to seek supportive counseling, because often when a loved one is avoiding the issue of cancer, it is a sign that the loved one is having trouble coping with their situation as well. Julie started one on one therapy and she and her psychiatrist developed a treatment plan which included talk therapy, restorative yoga and antidepressant medication. She felt much better within the first two weeks and back to herself after a month of treatment.

The emotional distress of cancer in women can trigger serious emotional distress including depression and anxiety which are often untreated. About 25% of cancer patients will experience depression at some point during their illness. A study of 236 newly diagnosed breast cancer patients conducted at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon N.H., found as many as 47% of the women reporting emotional distress that interfered with their daily lives.** Symptoms included fear, worry, nervousness, sadness and depression. Anxiety is often a large component of the depression and often is the symptom most commonly expressed by the patient to her doctor. These patients often experience not feeling like themselves and the inability to approach activities or child care with the same enthusiasm.

For a consultation with Dr. Naomi Greenblatt about therapy for cancer emotional distress, including depression and anxiety associated with a diagnosis of cancer and cancer treatment, call The Rocking Chair at (201) 308-5325.

* Pseudonym

** “Distress, Psychiatric Syndromes, and Impairment of Function in Women With Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer,” Mark T. Hegel, Caroline P. Moore, E. Dale Collins, Stephen Kearing, Karen L. Gillock, Raine L. Riggs, Kate F. Clay, Tim A. Ahles, CANCER; Published Online: November 13, 2006 (DOI: 10.1002/cncr.22335); Print Issue Date: December 15, 2006.