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Healing the emotional scars of breast cancer

Breast cancer survival is more than follow-up chemotherapy and watching (thankfully) the surgical incisions heal. Even after oncologists reassure survivors that their prognosis is excellent and that they may resume a “normal” life, many women feel more frightened, lonely and vulnerable than ever.

Breast cancer, like any life-threatening disease, not only harms the body but cuts deeply into the psyche too, often forcing women to battle their innermost fears as well as their outward disease. These emotional scars must heal properly along with the body, and often the survivor is the only one who can mend her own soul.

The challenge of adjustment

The fact is, life is never the same after a woman survives cancer. While her victory gives her a proverbial new lease on life, it transforms her into a different person. Many breast-cancer survivors travel the same road in the months after acute medical care ends. Familiar signposts include:

  • Grief. They mourn for who they once were and can no longer be.
  • Anger. They yearn to strike back at that which disrupted their lives.
  • Shame. They feel their bodies appear violated and altered.
  • Envy. They harbor resentment toward cancer-free women.
  • Guilt. They blame themselves for “causing” a family disaster.
  • Self-hate. They may stuff their feelings with alcohol, food or drugs. In addition, health experts warn, 25 percent of breast-cancer survivors become clinically depressed within a year after their treatment ends.

Rediscovering ‘normal’

Left untreated, the pain and sense of loss surrounding breast cancer will prevent complete recovery. Fortunately, a wide range of resources, both self-help and outside, are available to let survivors target and overcome their emotional turmoil. Emotional healing will come once a woman has discovered, explored and embraced the “new person” and stopped trying to go back to “the way things were.”

A doctor’s office often is the best place to start. Breast-cancer survivors may consult national organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and Y-Me. These support groups play a pivotal role in helping survivors lose their feelings of isolation and rejoin life.

Many survivors also become self-therapists. They read books or find Internet sites authored by fellow survivors or medical professionals specializing in cancer recovery. And recently, many groups have launched support classes for spouses of survivors, focusing on emotional adjustments and family issues that help couples weather the storm.

Emotional healing is a slow, often difficult process that involves examining and resolving many painful issues. In exchange, survivors say they achieve greater inner strength, a more fulfilling life and a true sense of spiritual belonging in which they can accept any challenge—especially to enjoy their second chance.