Fighting the Emotional Battles of Breast Cancer

bc awareness

One of the scariest experiences in a woman’s life is being told, “I’m sorry, you have breast cancer.” From this moment forward, nothing in her world will ever be the same. As earlier diagnoses are being made, more women are facing this scenario. Yet, with more knowledge and early detection on our side, more women are also surviving.

Beating breast cancer is a battle that takes strength and resiliency on a physical and emotional level. Along with fear and determination, one emotion that can arise for many women diagnosed with an illness is one that may surprise you: shame. Too often, when someone learns they have a physical ailment, they are unaware that a form of negative thinking can start to influence their self-perceptions and actually attack them for getting sick. Ridding oneself of this “critical inner voice” can help women alleviate some of the pain and stress of their condition and focus on the many tools available that will help them get well.
The DVD Breast Cancer: The Path of Wellness & Healing brings together premiere cancer doctors and wellness experts, along with breast cancer survivors to offer valuable information and advice for dealing with breast cancer on both an emotional and physical level. In addition to exploring many methods of treatment, this film emphasizes the importance of psychological strength and positive thinking. As Dr. Maishing Ni says in the film, “You don’t have to become a victim of your negative mind; you can choose to think in a positive way. You can choose to re-frame every situation.” In order to positively frame the journey toward wellness, a woman must learn to tune out the voice of her inner critic and challenge it every step of the way. On October 19, I will be hosting the free webinar “Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice,” as a means of helping people recognize where their critical inner voices come from and how they can counter them in their everyday lives.

Women who struggle with breast cancer find themselves on an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes they may feel shut down and numb, and then there are times when they may feel flooded with myriad feelings, many of them intense and confusing. An understanding of the critical inner voice and the impact it has on the emotional state of a person is a valuable psychological tool for a woman who is grappling with her reactions to breast cancer.

The critical inner voice can be conceptualized as an internal enemy that is making itself known to us in the self-limiting thoughts and attitudes that we all have. Even when we are in good health, our critical inner voice tries to turn us against ourselves by fostering inwardness, distrust, self-criticism, self-denial and a generalized retreat from our goal-directed activities. But when we are hit with something like cancer, the critical inner voice is merciless. That is why it is important for a woman to become aware of what her critical inner voice is telling her in relation to her breast cancer. How is it influencing her reactions to it? As Dr. Dean Ornish advises, “Stress promotes cancer growth, it suppresses your own immune surveillance system. Stress comes not so much from what we do but more importantly from how we react to what we do.”

So what are the voices about breast cancer? The critical inner voice is often there from the very beginning when you first feel a lump, misguiding you with comments like: “Don’t worry about it. You’re just making a big deal out of nothing. It will probably go away.”

And when you go to the doctor: “Don’t ask that question; you’re just going to look stupid. Stop worrying. Just be quiet and be strong. You’re being such a baby.”

Then when you’re diagnosed: “You’re contaminated; diseased. You’re rotten inside. You’re no good anymore.” “This is all your fault because of your unhealthy habits. You brought this on yourself. You’re to blame. You deserve no sympathy.”

When you begin treatment: “You look like a freak. You’re different from everyone else. They are normal, and you are not!” “Why don’t you just give up? This whole thing isn’t worth it. It’s such an ordeal and it probably won’t cure you anyway. It’s not worth the fight.”

There are voices about how other people feel toward you: “You are such a burden to them. They have to take care of you now. You don’t have anything to offer them anymore.” “He won’t be attracted to you anymore; he will be repelled by you.” “He won’t want to touch you, much less make love to you.” “Your children are embarrassed by you. They don’t want to have a sickly mother.”

So what can a woman do to fight her voice attacks? She can be aware of them and then consciously choose to not act on them. In the DVD, one of the breast cancer survivors, Stephanie, stated, “Getting this diagnosis will either put you down one path or put you down another path.” And you can determine which path you go down.

Do not isolate yourself. Isolation is the perfect breeding ground for negative, self-critical thoughts. These thoughts then perpetuate a destructive inclination to isolate ourselves further, telling us to be alone or that we are a burden on others. Human beings are social animals; living alone, without contact with people is not healthy. Dr. Ornich says, “Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and isolated, which is a real epidemic in our culture, are more likely to get sick and die than those who have love and connection and community.”

There are support groups for women who have breast cancer that offer them the opportunity to talk with other women who are sharing their experience. Dr. David Spiegel from Stanford University conducted a one year study in which women with breast cancer were randomly divided into two groups; both had the same radiation and surgery but one met once a week in a 1½ hour support group. In his follow up five years after the study, Dr. Speigel found that the women in the support group lived twice as long as those in the other group.

Deal with your emotions. It is easy for people who are sick to get caught up in the specifics of their disease and the details of their treatment, and overlook their feelings about what they are experiencing. Find a situation where you can talk about your feelings: a support group, a doctor, a therapist, or a compassionate friend. There are so many emotions to sort through at this time: anger, guilt, sadness, fear, resentment, to name a few. When negative emotions such as anger and hatred are held on to, they actually suppress the immune system and promote cancer.

Because negative emotions are promoted by the critical inner voice, it is important to deal with your voice attacks as part of dealing with your emotions. In Breast Cancer: The Path of Wellness & Healing, Kathy Freston recommends asking, “What is the anger in me that needs to be looked at? Is there some old wound that I need to tend to? Am I leaving this section of my life in a clean way so that I can start the next chapter of my life fresh, clean, healed without any of that old dark energy pulling me down?”

Let people love you. One of the most common and most destructive inner voices that women who are battling breast cancer have is: “Don’t bother the people you love with this illness; just deal with it yourself. No one can love you now that you are diseased; you should go away.” Melissa Etheridge did this, “So I really totally went away and that really hurt intimacy. I was dealing with this issue, this fear, I was fighting it all myself but I was not available; I was not there [with my partner].” It is important to maintain intimacy and actively go against what your critical inner voice is telling you. Dr. Ornich advises, “Anything that can create a sense of intimacy is healing; whether it is making love, whether it is by expressing love in other ways, anything that can enhance intimacy is healing.”

A particularly tough challenge at this time is letting the people who love you help you. This is especially true for women because they have critical inner voices telling them, “You are the one who is supposed to be the caregiver in the family.” Stephanie, the breast cancer survivor, said that having cancer “has made me realize my ability to love, my ability to be loved by others, it’s a hard thing to do sometimes, to allow yourself to be loved.” She went on to describe a conversation with her partner, “I said to him recently, do you think that we would be this close had I not been diagnosed, and he said absolutely not. Because he got to see me at the most vulnerable I’ve ever been. And he took care of me, and I allowed him to take care of me, and the physical relationship and the emotional relationship only deepened.”

Remember to have fun! Focus on the future! Fighting breast cancer is a difficult undertaking with the intensity of the treatment and the side effects, the emotional reactions plus the attacks of the critical inner voice. It is easy to lose sight that there is still joy in life. Yet there is still fun to be had. In the film, Sheryl Crow says, “We don’t embrace joy nearly as quickly as we do pain, because joy we are sure is going to leave any second, so we don’t want to even risk the let down of it leaving again. I think it is a mindset you have to be really conscious about.” Don’t forget to embrace joy. Dr. Ornich has observed that “People who have cancer sometimes say things like, you know having the diagnosis of cancer is one of the best things that happened to me. ‘What are you, crazy?’ ‘No, that’s what it took to really get my attention, to change my values, to spend my time with the people who love me, the people I care about, to do the things that are really important to me.'”

Be sure to remind yourself that your life isn’t over. Enjoy today and look forward to tomorrow. Think about the future; about how you want your life to be from this point forward. Dr. Ornich goes on to say, “If we can use the experience of suffering as a catalysis for transforming our lives, to do the things that matter most to us; to let go of what other people think that we should be doing so that we can do what resonates with our own self and our own soul, then that experience can be healing, even if it is not necessarily curative.”

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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