Life isn’t easy even without a cancer diagnosis–we all have everyday struggles, both big and small. And cancer is never “convenient.” As a result, many cancer patients are dealing with the stresses of daily life–challenges related to work, family, friendships and other close relationships, financial difficulties, or additional health issues–when a diagnosis further disrupts their life. And while navigating cancer may put things into perspective, other problems don’t simply disappear.
It’s important to both consider and prioritize mental wellness even during times of physical health crisis.
We recently spoke with Jaclyn Chung, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a breast cancer survivor herself, to learn more about how patients can prioritize self-care and mental wellness when faced with what may be the greatest obstacle they have encountered to-date in their lives.
Jaclyn, can you tell us about your own cancer journey?
I was diagnosed in 2019 when I was only 33 years old. I had a double lumpectomy and went through both chemotherapy and radiation. Like most people, I had complications and struggled with the side effects from my treatment. I found out I have a BRCA 2 gene mutation, which added a whole other element to my journey. I didn’t know anything about BRCA 2, and then learned my treatment and ongoing monitoring would be affected by this inherited condition. I quickly came to realize that everyone’s experience is different; there’s no “one size fits all” for cancer. Even within the breast cancer population, there are so many unique types of cancer and cancer experiences.
What was most surprising to me was the long-term influence on my mental health–and I was better prepared than most, as I was finishing up my graduate training to become a therapist when I was diagnosed. I could never have prepared myself for how life-altering a cancer diagnosis is. But, it changes everything.
How did you navigate your early diagnosis?
It caused so much worry. I wasn’t, at first, focused on the physical journey. I was only 33 years old with so many goals ahead of me. I wondered “What am I going to do about my life plans?” And, “How will I manage this?” I survived those early days by not changing anything. I didn’t take the time to prioritize myself or practice self-care. I don’t recommend that approach–but maintaining normalcy was my coping mechanism, and my way of retaining control. Because, at the beginning, you don’t have any answers. You have to spend weeks waiting for pathology, and it takes a long time to even start treatment. The waiting adds to the worry. Fortunately, I was already in therapy with an individual therapist, and the focus of our sessions automatically shifted to supporting me through my cancer experience.
What do you recommend for others who might not have an existing therapist or mental health resource they can turn to, following diagnosis?
My first piece of advice is to find a community of peer supporters whom you identify with. For me, as a young breast cancer patient, I sought out support groups composed of others experiencing a breast cancer diagnosis at similar stages in their lives. I found comfort there and made friendships.
I also recommend working to find a therapist, if you don’t already have one. You need somebody outside of your family who is both trained and objective. Try to find someone who has experience working with people who’ve had or have cancer. It’s important to realize that your family members and other loved ones are going through their own trauma tied to your diagnosis. Because it can be difficult to find a therapist quickly, I suggest connecting with the social worker assigned to you from your cancer center. Your social worker may be able to connect you with resources and make recommendations for mental health professionals to contact.
Your insurance provider should also have a list on its website or app of the mental health professionals it covers at in-network rates. Review their profiles on places like Psychology Today, and start reaching out to the people whose profiles resonate with you. In a post-COVID environment, it’s also much easier to find providers within your state whom you can connect with via telehealth. This can be incredibly helpful when you’re already navigating considerable in-person healthcare visits.
As a therapist, what type of advice would you give your own patients?
From a mental health perspective, what happens with a crisis is that it cracks us open. The trauma and journey ends up being about your whole life, not just the present moment. You may find that past trauma or difficult memories surface in the face of this crisis. The depth of the therapeutic healing journey can actually be much deeper because of cancer.
My guidance for patients in early diagnosis is: react how you want to. Validate your emotions. Make space to actually feel what you’re going through. Moving things out of your life and prioritizing is key. Treatment is going to be number one–but make time to feel mad or sad. Devoting entire days for living in those emotions is important.
- As I said earlier: find your community. Find a “cancer friend.” Your doctor or social worker might be able to gain approval to connect you with a like-minded patient (without violating HIPAA).
- You have to do the physical work aligned with your treatment; that’s table stakes. But thinking about your mental and emotional wellbeing is a close second.
- Finding a trusted advocate is also really important. Who is the friend or the family member who can be there for you? Having somebody who can come with you to appointments and listen to the information your provider shares is so helpful. Try to find someone who isn’t triggering–it shouldn’t be somebody who causes a lot of distress, but should be someone who can help you sort through the information logically.
- If you don’t have a trusted advocate in close proximity, ensure you have a doctor who feels supportive and “on your team.” You need a provider you trust and who makes you feel heard. You can always get another opinion, or ask for another provider.
How can patients cope when they’re already undergoing stress and then are forced to deal with a cancer crisis?
I suggest looking at your internal resources. Draw from your past and the resiliency you’ve demonstrated throughout your life. You’ve made it through significantly challenging times. Again, you’ll have to prioritize your life. Ask for help and support with your other major obligations. Give specific ways others can help you because friends and family will likely want to support you and won’t know how.
Utilize the resources available to you. Hopefully it starts with your medical team, which includes a social worker whose job it is to be there for you. Get grounded in what’s ahead of you, and the steps you need to take.
There are so many resources available, but at first, you may not be ready for them. You might be focused on getting through the day and the next day. Trust your ability to cope and adapt, and try to get comfortable with the fact that both feelings and circumstances will constantly change.
In treatment: it does get better, and then it gets worse. And repeat. And that’s how life goes. But protecting your mental and emotional wellness while you navigate a health crisis will help you now, and as active treatment concludes and you move to the next stage of your journey.