Emotional Impact of Cancer Diagnosis
Mona Amini, MD, is a psychiatry resident physician at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. Her office can be reached at (602) 839-6800.
Question: My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and can’t come to terms with her diagnosis. They say a positive outlook is critical to successful treatment. What can we do to help her?
Answer: A person’s quality of life is determined by a wide range of factors, including those related to physical, emotional, social and economic well-being.
With a devastating diagnosis like cancer, all of these factors and, ultimately, one’s quality of life becomes overshadowed by the disease.
Since a cancer diagnosis often comes with little warning, it is not unusual for a patient to face—and be forced to work through—a variety of emotions, much like the grief process.
These emotional stages typically begin with denial, followed by anger, negotiation, sadness or depression, and, finally, acceptance.
Sometimes, patients are unable to focus on -- or much less find -- a positive perspective from which to fight the disease until they move through each stage. It is possible that your mother is still following this very natural and necessary path toward acceptance.
Seeking a second opinion may also be helpful as it can help put a definitive stamp on the diagnosis. In addition, gathering as much information as possible about the disease, treatment techniques and the individual’s specific diagnosis, including cancer type, size, location and whether it has spread can be beneficial. Understanding these facts helps make the diagnosis real and, in turn, something not to be ignored.
Seek support from a variety of resources, including hospital libraries, disease-specific organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and local support groups and education programs. These resources can be instrumental in helping patients and families work through facing and accepting a devastating diagnosis.
However, if you feel that your mother is experiencing a chronically low mood that worsens despite your family’s best efforts to help her understand and face her diagnosis, then severe depression may be setting in. In such case, immediate referral to a behavioral health professional for evaluation and additional support may be needed.
Coping with a devastating diagnosis is personal, and the approach differs for each person. The best thing you can do is offer your support, help your mother find answers to her questions and, if needed, ensure she receives follow-up physical and psychological care.