If you've recently been diagnosed with breast cancer or with any other cancer, you may be experiencing a wide variety of emotions: fear, anger, sadness, guilt, helplessness and anxiety.

You may wonder, "Why me?" Often patients are unsure about what to do next and at times have to sort out contradictory medical information and treatment advice.

You will need to acquire some new skills, including how to best communicate with doctors and other medical personnel, how to choose your best treatment options, and how to manage your own responses and those of your family and friends. Today, there is strong research data that your emotional well-being and getting support from others can be important to physical recovery.

Your Cancer Health Team

Cancer is a serious and complex disease. To beat it, you will need a team of health professionals — all bringing their own specific specialties to your recovery. While oncologists specialize in cancer treatment, your primary care physician will also be a part of your team. You are also likely to see a surgeon and perhaps other specialists as well. A mental health professional will be an important team player as well.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals work directly with the patient and his or her family, as well as with the entire medical team, to help personalize the patient's medical decisions, manage treatment side effects, improve communication, provide support and enhance emotional recovery and well-being.

Your Cancer Treatment Options

Conventional cancer treatments — from surgery to chemotherapy — are themselves traumatic to the patient. However, in many cases they are known to save lives.

Some patients may decide to pursue dietary and lifestyle changes as part of their primary treatment regimen. Psychologists have techniques to make adherence to these new behaviors easier and more successful.

Psychological interventions have also proven to be extremely effective in helping patients handle the pain and symptoms of the disease and the side effects of treatment. For example, techniques used by psychologists can significantly reduce anxiety before surgery and decrease the nausea that often precedes and accompanies chemotherapy. Psychological interventions can also help the majority of cancer patients who report debilitating pain.

The post-treatment period is usually ignored. Emotional recovery from the trauma of cancer treatment takes longer than physical recovery. Psychological services can help mitigate the long-term effects of cancer treatment.

Cancer Affects Whole Families

When one member of a family has cancer, the whole family is affected and, in fact, psychologists consider these family members to be "secondary patients." Cancer affects an entire family, not only because there are genetic links to cancer and cancer risk, but because when one member of a family has cancer the whole family must deal with the illness.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, help for the entire family may be in order. When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, roles suddenly change. Spouses will need to take on new responsibilities at home; relatives and friends may be needed to participate in the day-to-day running of the household; and children will need special attention.

Communication among all the players is imperative. Psychologists help construct a game plan that works for all family members during every phase of the illness.

Copyright © 1997 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.