How to Cope After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis: 5 Tips for Self-Care
The moments after a breast cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling lost and confused. I remember when we got the news about my mother’s cancer. We felt a mix of emotions—anger, sadness, hopelessness, and fear. You may feel the same way. And you may relive all of these emotions again once you start considering the route of treatment.
With this in mind, I’d like to share some of my top tips for self-care during and following breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Read on for advice on everything from following a healthy diet to maintaining strong mind and spirit—for yourself and your loved ones.
Coping After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis
If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you may be struggling to figure out the steps to take after a breast cancer diagnosis.
I’ve put together a list of five tips to help you through this challenging time. These tips are intended to help you take care of yourself (or your loved one) and stay strong. There are different breast cancer stages and that will affect your treatment. That said, all of the tips below apply regardless of the stage.
5 Tips for Self-Care After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis
1. Ask questions and be informed.
I completely understand that being newly diagnosed with breast cancer can be an unsettling time. But the more you can learn about your condition and your treatment options, the more you can feel empowered to make the right decisions for yourself.
Feeling like you have some control in a situation that feels so out of your control will help you to stay strong as you accept your cancer diagnosis and move forward to taking action, whatever that means to you.
One of the biggest lessons I learned throughout my mom’s cancer journey was to get to know your cancer care team and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s possible that your team may include more than one kind of cancer doctor, or oncologist, including surgical, medical—either conventional or naturopathic, and radiation oncologists.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, a lot of information will likely be thrown your way in a minimal amount of time. Do not be afraid to take a day or two to assimilate the information and return with questions.
When my mom was sick, I found us agreeing to treatments out of fear and not understanding or hearing the side effects or efficacy of the recommendations. This is the time to speak up and be heard and the time for your team to make sure you feel comfortable with your decisions.
For example, you may have questions about the type of treatment your doctor(s) recommends. Or you may want to make sure you understand any possible side effects any recommended breast cancer treatment may cause. This cannot always be accomplished in a 20-minute appointment. Allow yourself the opportunity to understand and make an informed decision, so that you can move forward with a more positive outlook toward your recovery.
It will also be important to understand the five breast cancer stages (Stages 0–4) and which stage your breast cancer fits.
You may find it helpful to keep a notebook to write down your questions and keep information related to your treatment.
Bringing a family member or friend to appointments can also be a helpful way to not only get the support you need but to also help you keep track of the details and make sure that all of your questions are answered.
2. Keep a strong mindset.
It’s important to keep a strong mindset after a breast cancer diagnosis. You may feel scared, unsettled, sad, or angry—or all of these. Feel your feelings but stay strong and keep a positive outlook—don’t assume the worst right away. Stay focused on each moment and remember the seemingly little things that bring you joy.
Like I suggested above, being informed will help you to feel empowered. Keeping a strong mindset ties in with being an advocate for yourself. No matter your diagnosis or what happens, you have the power to take care of yourself and to reach out for help when you need it.
Daily affirmations and journaling can help you maintain your mental strength. For example, one simple affirmation to try might be, “I am strong in body, mind, and spirit.” You can write this down and post it where you will see it each day. It’s also especially powerful to say affirmations out loud.
Journaling for a few minutes each day after a breast cancer diagnosis can help you process your feelings and gain clarity. Finding this clarity can help you build focus and mental and emotional strength.
3. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
Chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on the body. While occasional inflammation is necessary when your immune system is helping you heal, say from a cut or a short-term illness, inflammation that persists over a long period of time can lead to serious health problems.
Ongoing inflammation causes damage to the body’s cells and tissues. Aside from illness or autoimmune diseases, other sources of inflammation may include obesity, secondhand smoke, stress, lack of exercise, and poor diet. 
After a breast cancer diagnosis, it’s more important than ever to do what you can to lower the amount of inflammation in your body. Making some key changes to improve your diet is one of the most helpful things you can do to help lower inflammation and improve your health. In fact, a recent study demonstrated the link between poor diet and cancer.
One of the best ways to eat an anti-inflammatory diet is to switch to a plant-based diet. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go totally vegetarian or vegan. It simply means that you focus on eating primarily vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit.
Cutting out processed foods and sugar and lowering your intake of caffeine and alcohol are also important steps to eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Research has also shown a correlation between added sugars and drinking sugary beverages and a higher risk of cancer. 
It can be difficult to stay nourished at times, particularly when undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Nausea and lack of appetite are common side effects. But it is very important to maintain a healthy body weight during this time— and not let muscle wasting occur.
Focus on smoothies with plant-based protein, healthy but flavorful snacks (like my tahini chocolate chip cookies or breakfast cookies), small pieces of fruit, and healthy protein bars. Grass-fed bone broth is also a fabulous way to get nutrition on a nauseated tummy. Keep some warmed in a mug to sip on throughout the day.
4. Support your liver.
The liver works hard to cleanse the body of toxins. Going through chemotherapy can put an added burden on the liver and make it harder to do its job. Because of this, it’s extra important to help support your liver function during chemotherapy to improve its ability to rid your body of toxins.
One of the most promising herbal remedies to help support the liver during cancer treatment (and otherwise) is milk thistle.
Many studies have demonstrated the benefits of silibinin, the active compound in milk thistle. While liver-protective effects on cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy have been documented, specifically anticancer effects have not yet been shown in human clinical trials. That said, anticancer activity has been found in preclinical lab and animal studies. 
To help support your liver during cancer treatment, you may want to consider giving a high-quality milk thistle supplement or tea a try. Note that sometimes milk thistle can cause mild side effects such as a stomachache or diarrhea, and depending on your treatment plan, the timeline for using milk thistle may vary so be sure to speak with your doctor before trying any new supplements.
5. Relieve your stress.
There’s no question that the time after a breast cancer diagnosis and during treatment can be highly stressful. As you move through your breast cancer treatment, finding ways to relax and relieve stress are key to your wellbeing. Self-care needs to be your priority.
You may want to try relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or guided meditation. Yoga can also be a fantastic way to combine emotional and physical stress relief.
Besides relaxation techniques, consider things you like to do for fun. Maybe there’s something you haven’t done in a long time that used to bring you joy. Now more than ever you need to bring some joy and fun into your life. When my mom was undergoing chemotherapy, we would get together and watch “Grace and Frankie” on Netflix. Laughter is powerful medicine.
Consider exploring fun ways to reduce stress, whether that means doing activities solo or joining with family and friends for some social time. Do what is right for you and take care of yourself.
A Word About Regular Breast Cancer Exams
Breast self-examinations and regular breast cancer screenings, or mammograms, can help detect cancer early. Over many years as a physician, I have had quite a few patients who have survived breast cancer. Ninety percent of them found the lump with a breast self-exam. I cannot stress monthly breast self-exams enough. You know your body better than anyone, and if you feel anything abnormal, get screened!
The American Cancer Society recommends that women at average risk of breast cancer have the option to start annual mammography at 40 to 44 years old. The ACS recommends that women begin annual mammography at age 45 and continue through age 54. Women 55 and older at average risk are advised by the ACS to then transition to biennial (every two years) screening or continue with an annual mammogram if they prefer. 
Whether or not you or someone you love has been diagnosed with breast cancer, if you are a woman 40 years old or older, it is a good idea to go for an annual mammogram.
I prefer the 3D mammograms as they have a more focused view of the tissue. Breast ultrasounds are also quite helpful if you tend to have fibrocystic or dense breasts. For younger women who want to more closely monitor potential cancer, breast ultrasounds are an inexpensive and easy way to stay ahead of the game.
Note that a link between estrogen and breast cancer has been noted by researchers. For example, studies have shown that women who are currently in perimenopause or menopause and undergoing menopausal hormonal therapy that includes synthetic estrogen and progestin may be at a higher risk of breast cancer. 
If you are at a higher risk of breast cancer due to family history or a prior cancer diagnosis, it’s imperative that you get screened regularly.
Talk with your doctor about the right screening protocol for you if you or your family has a history of cancer.
Here are a few quick reminders to keep in mind after a breast cancer diagnosis:
- Learn what you can about your condition and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Ask family members and friends to support you during this time.
- Find ways to relax and relieve stress.
- Get regular mammograms.