Coping on the Post-Diagnosis RollercoasterJuly 20, 2023
Breast reconstruction is an emotional journey. I often describe it as a series of waves. They are unpredictable forces of nature. They come in different sizes at different times, and just when you think the tide has gone out, sometimes it comes right back in again. However, just like any metaphor, this imagery does not resonate with everyone. Each patient experience is different. Today, a patient shared a different image with me, one that might be useful to patients for whom the waves do not feel quite right. She described her experience as akin to a game of Whack-a-mole, where feelings pop up suddenly. The instinct is to push them back down as quickly as possible.
As someone completes and heals from the physical treatments, the patient and others around them frequently assume that the individual has also healed emotionally. Therefore, when that “wave” or “whack-a-mole” flood of feelings occurs, patients can often judge themselves harshly and erroneously believe they are deficient or weak. As another cancer thriver shared, “often it feels impossible to deal with no matter how poised you are for their potential arrival.” It is important to recognize that you do not need to hit every mole that pops up. Those eruptions of emotion are natural. They are part of your healing process.
I often speak about the initial shock stage following a breast cancer diagnosis or identification of a risk-increasing gene mutation. In the aftermath, patients quickly move into a protective mode that is somewhat robotic. That protective mode is natural and sometimes helpful as they confront an overwhelming number of appointments for consultations, care providers, diagnostic tests, and treatment options. When it ends, patients frequently find themselves at a loss, wondering why they suddenly have so many strong feelings.
While physical treatment and emotional response run on parallel tracks, they do not move with synchronicity. Addressing the emotional piece of breast reconstruction is very similar to a grieving process. There is no time frame or specific order of events. While one does not necessarily go through the typical five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, patients do typically experience a range of emotions. We handle as much as we can handle at any given time. Most patients I’ve worked with describe it as coming upon them like an unexpected wave. They recall feeling shocked and swallowed up. It may not be until after the physical treatment is completed—possibly several years out—that one begins to allow in the unaddressed emotional piece. This process is one of the primary reasons the Patient Empowerment Program is open-ended.
In my recent Instagram post, below, I discussed the pressure women often feel to make others more comfortable. Many mistakenly feel a sense of “weakness” if they openly share feelings related to their journey.
I believe it is critical to be compassionate to yourself as you begin to address the emotional component, the unfinished business of any cancer journey. We don’t always have control over events in our lives, but we do control our responses to them. Reach out to those who have gone through the process of grieving from an illness, a support group, or seek the assistance of a professional with experience in this arena. It is essential to be aware that finding a “good fit” with someone you trust may take several attempts. The wise person is the one who chooses to find ways to process their feelings to allow them to move forward. Feel free to reach out to me for referrals or to speak to me about whether the Sisterhood of Support is right for you.
All visual connections and quotes were used with express permission from their original sources.