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October 15, 2019

Feeling Devastated by Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis?

Remember These 4 Things

Sophia L. Thomas DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP

Breast cancer is one of the most talked about cancers, for good reason. One in eight women will be diagnosed in her lifetime, and each will have in common the gut-wrenching moment when they first heard “you have cancer.” We talk a lot about cancer, but we tend to focus on the risks and symptoms – everything you should know before your world is turned upside down. For those who get a diagnosis, what happens after that moment will be even more important.

Every diagnosis is as individual as the person receiving it. Breast cancer is a complex disease, and there are many types, named for the specific cells of the breast that are affected.  Most are carcinomas – tumors that start in the epithelial cells that line organs and tissues. Breast adenocarcinoma is the most common, and begins in the milk producing glands or ducts. There are other, less common breast cancers, such as sarcomas, phyllodesPaget diseaseangiosarcomas and inflammatory breast cancer. For each, there are qualifying terms – in situ means the means the cancer has not spread, while infiltrating or invading cancers have impacted surrounding tissue.

Following a diagnosis, your health care provider will work to identify the stage, or extent, of your cancer. This is used to gauge how fast the cancer may grow or spread, and informs the best treatment options. Some combination of blood tests, a follow-up mammogram, breast MRI, bone scan, computerized tomography scan (CT) scan and a position emission tomography (PET) scan will help determine the stage. Factors that influence staging are the size and location of the primary tumor, whether the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes (and if so, how many) and if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body (and to what extent). This collective body of data will inform your prognosis and immediate next steps.

Then the real uncertainty sets in. There are many ways to treat breast cancer, depending on the type and how far it has spread, along with factors like your age, other health issues and your treatment preferences. Options include surgery to remove the cancer, chemotherapy to shrink or kill the cancer cells, hormone therapy to entice your body’s immune system to fight cancer cells and radiation to kill cancer cells. A treatment plan often includes more than one approach, and there is no one-size-fits-all package.

No doubt, receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and downright terrifying. There will be an abundance of medical terms to understand, difficult decisions to be made and complex emotions to navigate, all the while managing the other parts of your life that used to absorb your time and attention, like family and work. While it will all seem scary and urgent, remember these four things when you or someone you love first gets a diagnosis: 

  1. A breast cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a medical emergency. Most people want the cancer out immediately, but rushing a surgery may not be the best treatment option. It’s important to take a step back and consider all the aspects of a diagnosis and the many available treatment options before making a knee-jerk decision.
  2. You control your care. Take the time to find a team of health care providers you trust and get to know them well. You will have a team of surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, nurses, social workers and counselors working for you and with you, so find the people who make you feel most comfortable, and trust that you are all working to beat cancer together.
  3. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Breast cancer can be physically and emotionally consuming, and a good support network can give you the freedom and energy to focus on your treatment. When possible, find parents who can drive carpool, coworkers who can pick up your slack and neighbors who can walk the dog, so you can focus more on your health.
  4. Think long term. In one generation, cancer survival rates have jumped 15 percent, and today, nine out of 10 patients will pass the five-year survival mark. Of course, eliminating cancer is the priority, but it’s also important to think beyond the cancer to address things like reconstruction and lifestyle changes that will have an impact on your health and well-being for years to come.

Getting a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating, but having the right information and good perspective can help you navigate the next steps to ensure you are making the best decisions. Setting yourself up with the right team, a dedicated support network and the best mindset can make all the difference in treatment, so take the time to create a care infrastructure that works for you and with you. Remember, there are 3.5 million breast cancer survivors who know what it feels like to sit on the other side of a breast cancer diagnosis and come out on top, and odds are in your favor that you will join them.