How Breast Cancer Can Affect Your Mental Health & How Counseling Can Help!


Facing breast cancer is not just a physical trial but also a profound mental and emotional journey. For many women, the diagnosis of breast cancer brings about a wave of emotional stress that can feel overwhelming. It is not only about dealing with the illness itself but also coping with the impact it has on one’s mental well-being. Anxiety, depression, and fear are common companions of this daunting journey, affecting not just the one fighting the illness but also their loved ones.

A few years ago I got a call from the mammography center that something suspicious has been found on my screening mammogram and I needed to come back in for a diagnostic mammogram. I was busy at work and naively asked if I can come back next week. “No, come in tomorrow” was the scheduler’s response. That was on a Tuesday and immediately following the repeat mammogram, a biopsy was scheduled for that Friday. It was a bank holiday weekend which meant I had to wait longer for the results. The nurse finally called with the results at 4.45pm the following Wednesday. The waiting was nerve wracking.

Next came the appointments with multiple new doctors such a breast surgeons and oncologists where you receive lots of information that you didn’t ever think you’d need. It’s hard to process all that information and all this can take a deep emotional toll, and then the actual treatment begins. Like many women before me, I joined a club I never wanted to belong to.

My experience was typical and from the call back after a mammogram, women often go through many procedures such a biopsies, MRIs, or Pet scans and then wait anxiously for all those results. Thoughts of whether the tumors are just in one place, or have they spread to the bones and other organs spin around your head. Trust me, Dr. Google is not your friend during this time as it can take you down many irrelevant rabbit holes and I suggest writing down your questions and asking your medical team rather than searching on the internet during this time.

Even after active treatment, whether surgery, radiation, chemo or targeted infusions, the effects of induced menopause and hormone blockers take a further toll on your body, and worry about reoccurrence, can take an emotional toll. Mental health struggles can arise at any point during the breast cancer journey—right from the diagnosis through treatment and even into survivorship.

I am a few years past surgery, chemotherapy and a year of targeted infusions, and I am out the other side and it is very important to me that I am there to help women who are currently going though this journey. I have taken courses on oncology psychotherapy and I also have 30 years of experience as a therapist specializing in anxiety treatment and with women counseling. I have put all my experience together to come up with individualized plans to help you in whatever way you need while you, and your family go through this.

Through this article, I explore the numerous ways breast cancer can influence mental health, identify who might be more at risk for for anxiety and depression, and discuss how professional counseling from someone who specializes in breast cancer can offer much-needed support and strategies for managing both the immediate and long-term psychological impacts of this disease. 

Understanding the Mental Health Impact of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is more than just a physical ailment; it deeply impacts mental health as well. When coping with breast cancer, women might experience a range of intense emotions including fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. The shock of diagnosis often propels one into feelings of uncertainty and fear of mortality, which can lead to significant mental distress. As treatment progresses, the physical side effects such as fatigue or changes in body image can further complicate mental wellness.

Moreover, the ongoing stress of dealing with medical appointments, treatment decisions, and the financial implications of care can exacerbate stress and anxiety levels. It’s common for people to experience shifts in their mental state throughout the course of treatment. Awareness and understanding of these emotional changes are crucial in managing the psychological impact of breast cancer effectively. By acknowledging the mental battles that accompany the physical ones, steps can be taken to address these issues head-on, improving overall quality of life during and after treatment.

Who Is Most at Risk for Mental Health Challenges During Breast Cancer?

While every person’s experience with breast cancer is unique, certain factors can increase the likelihood of facing significant mental health challenges. Women who have a pre-existing mental health condition, such as anxiety, OCD or depression, may find these issues magnified upon a cancer diagnosis. Similarly, women without a strong support system may struggle more due to lack of emotional and practical support.

In addition, the type and stage of cancer can influence mental health risks. Those dealing with more aggressive treatments or advanced stages of cancer might experience higher levels of stress and anxiety. Concerns about the impact of the disease on their physical capabilities, changes in appearance, and long-term health can lead to profound emotional responses. It’s crucial to identify individuals who may be more vulnerable to these challenges early in their diagnosis so they can receive the appropriate mental health support tailored to their specific needs, enhancing their ability to cope. No one should have to go through this alone.

How Counseling Can Support You Through Breast Cancer Treatment

The Emotional Impact of Breast Cancer

Navigating breast cancer treatment is a profound journey that encompasses physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. Counseling can play a pivotal role in supporting you throughout this process. As you undergo surgeries, chemotherapy, or radiation, the physical toll on your body is matched by emotional burdens, which may include fear, anxiety, and depression. Here, counseling offers a safe space to express these feelings, enabling you to process and cope with the realities of your treatment.

Benefits of Counseling During Treatment

Counseling offers numerous benefits for women going through breast cancer treatment. It can help you develop coping strategies, improve your mental health, and even enhance your physical recovery. Research shows that emotional support can lead to better treatment outcomes and a higher quality of life.

Moreover, counseling provides practical strategies for dealing with side effects of the treatment like fatigue and pain, which can affect your mental health. I can help you set realistic expectations for your recovery process and assist in managing stress through techniques such as mindfulness, relaxation exercises, and cognitive behavioral strategies. These methods help maintain your emotional resilience, empowering you in your fight against breast cancer.

What to Expect in Your First Session

Our first counseling session will involve an initial assessment. This is an opportunity for us to discuss your medical journey, emotional state, and any concerns you have. We will also talk about any history of anxiety, depression or trauma, current sources of support, current situation, and your specific needs. This information will help me tailor our approach so I can best support you.

Confidentiality and Trust

Trust and confidentiality is essential in counseling. All information discussed in sessions is kept confidential and I offer a safe and supportive space for you to explore how you feel, your fears and concerns.

Setting Goals

Together, we will work towards setting achievable goals that align with your needs and desires. These goals may change over time as you progress through treatment, and that is okay. My focus is always to empowering you to make positive changes in your life.

Types Of Counseling

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) For Breast Cancer Patients

CBT is a widely-used counseling approach that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. It can be particularly effective for managing symptoms of depression and anxiety, which are common among breast cancer patients.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

MBSR combines mindfulness practices with stress reduction techniques to help you stay present and manage emotional distress. This approach has been shown to improve mental well-being and reduce stress levels in cancer patients.

The Long-Term Benefits of Counseling For Breast Cancer

Building Resilience

Counseling can help you build resilience and develop coping skills that will serve you well beyond your cancer journey. These skills can enhance your ability to manage future challenges and maintain emotional well-being.

Improved Relationships

Therapy can also improve your relationships with loved ones. Enhanced communication, understanding, and mutual support can strengthen your connections and provide a solid foundation for your recovery.

Personal Growth

Many women find that counseling leads to personal growth and self-discovery. It can help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself, your values, and your aspirations. This personal growth can be a source of strength and empowerment.

Counseling for Changes in Body Image

Coping with Physical Changes

Breast cancer treatment often leads to significant physical changes, such as hair loss, mastectomy, or reconstructive surgery. These changes can impact a woman’s self-esteem and body image. Counseling provides tools and techniques to cope with these changes and fosters self-acceptance.

Rediscovering Self-Confidence

Therapists help women reconnect with their bodies and rediscover confidence. This might involve exercises focused on self-compassion, body positivity, and mindfulness. These practices can help women appreciate their bodies for their strength and resilience.

Practical Advice for Day-to-Day Living

Counseling also offers practical advice for daily life, such as choosing clothing that makes one feel comfortable and confident, exploring new hairstyles, and using makeup to enhance features. These small changes can significantly boost self-esteem.

Counseling for Menopause Symptoms

Understanding Menopause Induced by Treatment

Breast cancer treatment can induce menopause, bringing symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. Counseling helps women understand these changes and provides strategies to manage symptoms effectively.

Developing Coping Strategies

Therapists work with women to develop personalized coping strategies. This might include lifestyle modifications, stress management techniques, and dietary changes. These strategies can alleviate menopause symptoms and improve overall well-being.

Emotional Support and Validation

Menopause can be an isolating experience, but counseling offers emotional support and validation. Therapists help women understand that their feelings are normal and provide reassurance that they are not alone in their experiences.

The Role of Family and Friends in Counseling For Breast Cancer

Involving Loved Ones in Therapy

Involving family and friends in therapy sessions can strengthen the support system. This collaborative approach ensures that loved ones understand the emotional and psychological challenges, fostering empathy and support.

Educating Loved Ones

Counseling educates loved ones about breast cancer’s impact on mental health. This knowledge enables them to offer more meaningful support, improving the overall quality of life for the patient.

Creating a Nurturing Environment

Therapists guide families in creating a nurturing environment at home. This includes open communication, patience, and understanding, all of which are crucial for emotional healing.

Managing Long-Term Emotional Effects of Breast Cancer Treatments

The conclusion of active breast cancer treatment doesn’t necessarily mean the end of its emotional impact. Long-term effects such as hormone blockers and medically induced menopause can introduce new challenges, including mood swings, decreased libido, and other physical changes. These, coupled with ongoing worries about cancer recurrence, can significantly affect your mental well-being.

In this ongoing phase, counseling continues to be an invaluable resource. It provides a framework for you to explore changes in body image and self-identity, facilitating a more positive adjustment to your new normal. Regular sessions with a counselor can also provide strategies for addressing fears of recurrence, helping you to cultivate a mindset focused on wellness and recovery. Acknowledging and addressing these feelings through professional support not only helps in alleviating them but also enhances your quality of life.

Breast cancer is a journey that doesn’t just challenge the body but also tests the mind and spirit. I understand that facing this disease requires comprehensive care that addresses all facets of your well-being. Counseling can be a crucial tool in managing both the immediate and long-term mental health challenges posed by breast cancer. It equips you with the emotional support and coping strategies needed to navigate this challenging path.

Breast cancer is a journey that doesn’t just challenge the body but also tests the mind and spirit. I understand that facing this disease requires comprehensive care that addresses all facets of your well-being. Counseling can be a crucial tool in managing both the immediate and long-term mental health challenges posed by breast cancer. It equips you with the emotional support and coping strategies needed to navigate this challenging path.

Photo of me 1 year post treatment wearing my Breast Cancer Warrior t-shirt. Some days during this journey I was a tough warrior and other days I was a hot mess, but that’s okay, we can be and feel, many things at once).

If you or someone you love is battling breast cancer and the accompanying mental strain, remember, you don’t have to go through it alone. Reach out and learn how counseling in my Northbrook office, or virtually throughout Illinois or Florida, can provide support, enhance resilience, and promote healing during and after breast cancer treatment. Let’s work together to get you through this difficult part of your life’s journey.

Useful Local Breast Cancer Resources

Breast Cancer Org Offers a lot of useful information about breast cancer based on research and trusted links.

The Cancer Wellness Center Northbrook Offers many free programs, webinars and support groups for people going through all types of cancer and their family members.

Twist Out Cancer is a community of people currently going through treatment, survivors, caregivers, and artists that uses creative arts programming as a mechanism for healing.

Chemo Angels is a free service offered to people who are recently diagnosed and beginning chemotherapy or immunotherapy treatments. Volunteer angels provide support and lots of positive energy by sending weekly cards and messages.

The Wellness House offers a variety of free programs and services for people going through all types of treatment — exercise classes, nutrition seminars, support groups and more — that complement the treatment from doctors and specialists.

The Licorice Project – is a breast cancer community based in Chicago that brings brings women at all stages of breast cancer together so they can find the strength, humor, and friendship they need.

Dr. Sarah Allen

If you have any questions, or would like to set up an appointment to work with me and learn how to reduce anxiety, please contact me at 847 791-7722 or on the form below.

If you would like to read more about me and my areas of specialty,  please visit Dr. Sarah Allen Bio.

Dr. Allen’s professional license only allows her to work with clients who live in IL & FL & the UK and unfortunately does not allow her to give personalized advice via email to people who are not her clients. 

Dr. Allen sees clients in person in her Northbrook, IL office or remotely via video or phone.

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