Navigating Your Diagnosis and Breast Cancer Journey
A breast cancer diagnosis can send you into a whirlwind of emotions. It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, terrified, in denial and even caught off-guard. Coping with and understanding these feelings, along with the added stress of deciding on a treatment plan, can be challenging.
Michele McBride, Cancer Services Navigator at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Aquilino Cancer Center and breast cancer survivor, shares what you can expect after being diagnosed and tips for navigating your breast cancer journey.
Where to Start
After the news about the possibility of cancer, you’ll be going through a wide range of emotions. “As a breast cancer survivor myself, I know what it’s like to go through the journey,” says Michele. “Just getting started will seem overwhelming.”
Your doctor will start with finding out the type of cancer you have. This could include additional diagnostics tests such as a breast MRI, diagnostic mammogram and a biopsy. Based on the results, your care team will develop the best plan for your particular cancer. In the past, treatments were a one size fits all approach. That isn’t the case anymore where treatment is customized for your unique needs.
Exploring Treatment Plans
Treatment options and recommendations vary from person to person. They depend on factors such as age, medical history, type and stage of the tumor, or if you have inherited breast cancer genes such as BRCA1 or BRCA 2. Your plan may include chemotherapy, medication therapy, radiation therapy or surgery, such as mastectomy, lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery.
“Understanding the different treatments and what’s available to you can be a lot to take in, but the most important thing to remember is that you’re not alone,” states Michele. You, your doctor and your care team will work together to create a treatment plan that fits you best.
Your Dedicated Team
Depending on your plan, your care team may include cancer surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists or possibly plastic surgeons, along with other specialized doctors. Your team should also include specially trained healthcare providers that focus on other aspects of your well-being such as dieticians, social workers and counselors. Finding a care team that is all in one place like the Aquilino Cancer Center and the White Oak Cancer Center is also important. Not only will they work together on your plan but it will help cut down on travel and going back and forth between appointments. There will be a lot of appointments and giving you the peace of mind of just going down the hall for the next appointment will help to decrease your anxiety.
Your support team may include other health care professionals, such as:
- Dieticians - To guide you on healthy, nutritious foods
- Oncology nurses – Care for you before, during and after treatment
- Financial counselors – Give guidance on the cost of cancer treatments
- Social workers – To help manage stress and improve wellbeing
- Spiritual care team – Offers emotional and spiritual support for all faiths
- Palliative care team – Focus on improving quality of life by treatment of cancer symptoms
- Nurse navigators – To support you as you receive treatments
Nurse navigators, like Michele, play a critical role in your breast cancer journey. They are experienced nurses with oncology-specific clinical knowledge that serve as your guide and advocate. A nurse navigator is with you to lend support as you receive treatments and help you and your family navigate any challenges along the way.
“I’m here for our patients in any capacity they may need me,” says Michele. “Whether that’s figuring out insurance coverage, understanding what resources are available or simply helping them figure out transportation to appointments, I’m by their side to get them through whatever barriers they may encounter.”
While staying positive throughout your journey is vital, it’s often easier said than done. Sadness, anxiety and fear are all normal feelings that should be acknowledged and discussed. Ignoring these feelings can make you feel like you are navigating your diagnosis alone.
Joining a support group can help connect you with others dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “It can help give you a safe space to talk about what you’re feeling, as well as give you a platform to share your story and even find friendship,” according to Michele.
Work with your nurse navigator to find support groups or classes available to you. You and your loved ones may benefit from:
- Support groups with other patients coping with a diagnosis
- Cooking classes
- Art therapy
- Wellness classes on mindfulness
- Look Good…Feel Better®, a program open to all women with cancer that offers confidence-building services from cosmetologists and beauticians
Taking Care of Yourself
Breast cancer treatment can be draining both mentally and physically, so be sure to make yourself a priority. Michele shares her best self-care tips and ways to keep your spirits high:
Eat well: Healthy eating habits are important during and after cancer treatment to keep a healthy weight, maintain strength and keep body tissue healthy.
Get exercise: Exercise can be difficult depending on your treatment. Any type of activity can help, including taking short walks or stretching to start.
Get enough sleep: Your body will be going through a lot during treatment. Be sure to give it enough time to rest and recover.
Accept help: Your friends and family will want to help in any way they can.
Pick up a hobby: Hobbies are a great way to pass time and focus on something other than your diagnosis. Try learning something new or picking up a previous passion.
Treat yourself: Plan a trip with friends, a date with your loved one or a day filled with your favorite activities. It’s always good to have something to look forward to and work towards.
Laugh: Sometimes laughing can lift your spirits more than anything. Watch your favorite funny movie or go to a comedy show; do whatever makes you smile.
Receiving and coping with a breast cancer diagnosis is no small feat but you and your loved ones are not alone. Your care team will be there every step of the way, even after treatment ends to help you. This October for Breast Cancer Awareness month, we celebrate those still navigating through their journey, as well as breast cancer survivors.