How to prepare for your breast cancer treatment

A breast cancer diagnosis presents many challenges, and they’re not all medical.

If you’re reading this, you might be feeling like you’re standing at the foot of Mt Everest. You’re probably numb with shock, maybe you’re angry and afraid, or maybe it hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

Your breast cancer experience will be unique to you. But you don’t have to face it alone. We’ve talked to breast cancer nurses, patients who have gone through similar things to what you’re about to go through, and our wider medical professional community for some insight into those little things that make a big difference.

Managing emotions

  • Allow yourself some time to process your diagnosis and then, when you’re ready, reach out to others. Recording your thoughts and feelings in a journal can help a lot.
  • A sleepless night makes stress and anxiety worse. It’s ok to take a short term of night sedation, to help you to recharge.
  • Avoid subscribing to the stereotype of the Brave Breast Cancer Battler – give yourself permission to not smile all the time – it’s ok to have ups and downs and to express how you’re really feeling.

Working with your medical team

  • If you haven’t completed (or started) your family yet, ask your oncologist about your options for helping to future-proof your fertility.
  • Identify key members of your medical team and understand their roles; ask who to contact at each stage.
  • Use your breastcare nurse as your go-to person – her/his role is to provide support and information throughout treatment and recovery. This is the person you can turn to between medical appointments, if you have questions you’d like answered.

Managing information

  • Make a note of questions you want to ask and don’t be afraid to ask your medical team (rather than Google). There are no dumb questions – it’s your body and your journey so if you don’t understand something, ask again.
  • Ask your medical team for reliable websites if you do want to do your own research. Aim to read as you go, rather than jumping ahead – information overload is real; it’s emotionally exhausting and it could overwhelm you. Taking in small chunks of relevant information is a good strategy.
  • Take notes, record the appointment, or, if you don’t feel up to it, take a support person along to your appointments who can take notes for you. Ask for copies of test results.

Telling other people

  • Make a high and low priority list and a ‘To do’ list – if people offer to help, you will have something to ask them to do. This will make them feel useful and give you more time to rest and process.
  • Consider creating an email tree or a Facebook group to keep your chosen people up-to-date.
  • It can help to sort people into A, B and C support teams with A receiving all your non-filtered emotions, B the people who you can assign more practical requests to rather than sharing the depths of what you’re feeling, and C, the people who don’t really want to know, who you can turn to if you want to go out and just feel normal for a change.

Talking with children

  • While you might automatically want to shield young children, without an explanation from you, they may imagine something far worse. Use age appropriate language and reassure them by trying to keep routines in place (even if you need to delegate daily tasks to others).
  • Expect seemingly inappropriate reactions from teens including embarrassment, anger and refusal to talk about it. They may feel like they’re to blame. Let them carry on with school and other activities where possible.
  • Alert school and ask to be notified about concerning behaviour.
  • Provide books and resources, and give them time to come to you with questions.

Managing work

  • Work can be a good distraction from your breast cancer diagnosis, but it’s important to discuss closely with your surgeon and oncologist.
  • Check leave entitlements and talk to your manager about options: flexitime, working from home, part-time… ask your GP for any medical certificates.
  • Factor in delayed fatigue and “chemo brain” (short-term memory & concentration issues) when creating a realistic work expectation. After treatment, consider whether the stress and workload of your job is still appropriate for you.

After your diagnosis, you may benefit from the support services we offer, like free counselling, breast cancer-specific exercise programmes, our 0800 BC Nurse helpline, or our online community for breast cancer patients and supporters, mybc. We’re here to help.