While you can’t think your way into or out of breast cancer, your mental well-being plays an undeniable role in your health and the prevention of many diseases. If you do develop breast cancer, your mind can be powerful medicine to help you cope with the diagnosis, get through treatment and speed the physical and emotional healing that come after. Learn to tap that inner resource and you can regain some of the control a cancer diagnosis can steal away.
Tackle Your Emotional Risk Factors
The number one way to mentally guard yourself against breast cancer is to tune in to lifestyle behaviors that increase risk, says Jane Ehrman, MEd, CHES, a mind-body medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Do you plow through a bag of cookies when you’re upset? Smoke or drink a few glasses of wine every night to relax? Have you stopped exercising because you’re too embarrassed to go to the gym?
Emotions lie at the core of these high-risk habits. Poor diet, a lack of exercise and use of alcohol and tobacco all increase your risk of breast cancer. And simply put, you can’t successfully change your lifestyle without reshaping your mind — or at least how you handle negative emotions, anxiety and stress. Connect the dots between how you feel and how you react, then learn to follow a different path. Counseling, meditation, imagery and other tools can help you address negative feelings head-on and teach you how to reverse the behaviors associated with them. So instead of drowning in a carton of ice cream every time you’re stressed, maybe you’ll grab your sneakers and head out for a power walk instead.
And the role of stress itself in cancer?
“It’s not the daily stress of driving or traveling that significantly impacts our health,” Ehrman says. “It’s some kind of a stressor that creates a pervasive sense of hopelessness and helplessness and a feeling of being trapped in a life situation, like a relationship or a job, that over time erodes our wellness.” This ongoing stress floods the body with cortisol, a potent hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight reaction. In the short term and in small amounts, cortisol is beneficial — it increases your energy level, improves your memory, and lowers your sensitivity to pain — all good things in a real emergency. However, when stress becomes chronic and persistent and the body is continually exposed to cortisol in large amounts, inflammation, infection and disease can result. And in fact, a Canadian study published in the journal Genes, Chromosomes & Cancer found that cortisol disrupts the tumor-suppressing gene known as BRCA1, which is linked to breast cancer. Researchers suggest that this is possibly the biochemical link that explains the connection previous studies have found between severe psychological stress — such as loss of a loved one — and breast cancer.
Engaging in stress-management techniques and addressing the underlying cause of this deep stress with the help of a therapist, life coach or career counselor, depending on what is troubling you, can help put your life back on a more positive track, to boost your happiness and your health.
Coping with the Emotional Tide of Diagnosis
On hearing those dreaded words, “You have cancer,” even the most well-balanced of us can be thrown into a tsunami of emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. These feelings — which stem from legitimate concerns and questions — can sometimes be difficult to deal with alone.
If you’re struggling with profound emotions, enlist the help of a loved one and talk to your doctor about your options, including therapy and medication. Consider joining a cancer support group. Most hospitals and treatment centers offer one; ask your doctor or care coordinator for details.
Believe It to Achieve It
While it may seem easier said than done, positive thinking can be a huge help. Behavioral studies show that those who strongly believe in their ability to achieve a certain goal or outcome — such as staying strong enough during chemo to go for a walk every day — generally feel and function better than those who feel helpless over their situation. Here are some practical ways to feel in control of your situation and enhance your quality of life:
- Take an active role in deciding your treatment course and other issues of care.
- Tend to your body during treatment — even if you’re having trouble liking your body at the moment: Good nutrition, regular exercise (or as much physical activity as you can handle) and restful sleep help fight stress, boost energy and speed healing.
- Nurture your spirit: Engage in meaningful activities — whatever that means for you, whether it involves art, music, volunteering, meditating or spending time with loved ones.