Receiving the news that confirms you are at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, although not the same as being diagnosed with cancer, can be just as traumatic, overwhelming, and difficult to come to terms with.
Much of the battle you will face is mental so to help you navigate this difficult period, we reached out to Clinical and Health Psychologist, Dr Jodie Fleming, a BRCA1 positive breast cancer survivor herself and asked for advice on how to effectively manage your mental health.
Jodie says that fears, anxiety, decision-making and information overload can and likely will, all impact your mood and general functioning and are more than common occurrences. This makes taking care of your mental health just, if not more important, as taking care of your physical health.
Where to start.
In the beginning, focus on building or maintaining a strong foundation for your mental health. This includes eating well, sleeping at least 8 hours per night and exercising regularly. Engaging your social support system is super important and research tells us time and time again, that having good quality social support is one of the most important coping tools we can have in our toolkit.
Checking in with your self-talk and managing unhelpful thoughts and beliefs can have a massive impact on your overall mood and behaviours. You may need help learning some effective thinking tools and accessing a psychologist might be helpful for that. This can be very cost effective if you receive a mental health care plan referral from your GP.
The all-important pillars of good mental health.
Play, leisure and pleasure are also super important to keep your mental health balanced. Mindfulness and gratitude practice are now seen as major pillars of good mental health and that also applies to living with a higher risk of cancer and/or having a cancer diagnosis. Mindfulness techniques helped Jodie cope with the side effects of chemotherapy and she wrote about how she used them in her breast cancer memoir, A Hole in My Genes.
This is also the time to put yourself and your needs first. This may not come naturally, but you will benefit from surrounding yourself with your ‘people’, the ones who are able to show up and support you in the ways that you need. This may require you to be a bit more assertive than usual.
Be honest and open. Share information about your process so that friends and family can understand and empathise with what you are going through. Most importantly, set clear boundaries and limit time with those that are seeking support from you. And remember, your workplace can be more supportive if they are aware of what is happening for you outside of work.
A simple mindfulness practice, that anyone can do.
When the spotlight of your attention is solely in the present moment, you tend to feel better. Your mind is free from the ‘what ifs’ of the future and the ‘what dids’ of the past and it makes an incredible impact on instantly reducing stress and anxiety levels.
The simplest method for anchoring your attention in the here and now, is to take the position of the curious, open-minded scientist, making non-judgemental observations about your immediate environment by asking yourself the following five questions:
What are five things I can see?
What are five things I can hear?
What are five things I can feel?
What are five things I can smell?
What are five things I can taste?
Jodie has been teaching and using this strategy regularly for years and finds, they have now become an automatic process.
In order to make them automatic for you too, rehearse them often, starting when you are feeling calm to get the hang of imagining your character or focussing your attention on an object.
Once the method becomes easier and more natural, you can try using it during slightly more uncomfortable situations, gradually building your confidence in both applying the strategy, but also in its effectiveness, so that the next time you feel overwhelmed or anxious, you can pull this out of your toolbox of coping strategies.
Never forget, at Pink Hope, we are here to support you through all stages of your journey, so please remember, we are just a phone call, email or DM away. And our incredibly supportive community, who are on this journey as well, are here for you too.
This article was sponsored by Astra Zeneca and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope in consultation with medical experts.