Emotions After Mastectomy

Grief, one of the prevalent emotions after mastectomy, is an unfolding process that consists of five basic stages. We start the grieving process as soon as we learn that a mastectomy is a possibility and continue grieving long after the surgery is over.


Stage 1 – Denial

The denial stage is common when it comes to emotions after mastectomy. During this, we may feel shock, disbelief, and numbness. The denial stage is nature’s way of cushioning us from the bluntness of reality. Denial allows us to gradually absorb the painful truth.


Many women who have grieved the loss of a breast describe their response in the denial stage as hearing the information the doctor is telling them as though the physician is talking about someone else. They find themselves thinking that cancer and mastectomies happen to other people, not them.


Stage 2 – Protest

As our initial shock wears off, we move into the protest stage. This phase, which can be part of the jumble of emotions after mastectomy, often includes anger, sadness, and confusion.


Before we are even sure we have cancer, we often start to think about dying and leaving our loved ones behind. We feel sad for our kids, our partner, and ourselves. We often feel betrayed and angry with our body, and wonder what our emotions after mastectomy will be.


This is the time during which we tend to blame ourselves or others as we try to make sense of the loss. Anger at God, our doctors, or the relatives who passed on the bad genes are some of the very common emotions after mastectomy during the protest stage.


During this time, it is also common to experience physical symptoms from stress, such as diarrhoea, constipation, neck and shoulder pain, restless sleep, and fatigue.


Stage 3 – Disorientation

The third stage of grief is the disorientation stage. This stage is often accompanied by restlessness, confusion, and depression, as we have to change our routines and adjust to all the new emotions after mastectomy.


Disorientation is very natural after your chest has healed enough to begin to wear more normal clothes and you are feeling strong enough to go out in public. You can’t just go to your closet and pick out an outfit like before. Throwing on a bra and a T-shirt is not as simple at this point.


And even though most of these losses are temporary or become easier with time, making the adjustment to them is likely to cause you to feel confused and disoriented: these are, again, common emotions after mastectomy.


Stage 4 – Detachment

Following the disorientation stage we move into the detachment stage. During this stage we tend to isolate and withdraw ourselves, and possibly feel resigned and apathetic.


Too much contact with other people at this time often feels like an intrusion and a lot of work. We often feel, emotionally, that after mastectomy we need to be left alone in our misery to fully absorb our loss and get used to the fact that a mastectomy has forever changed our life.


Stage 5 – Resolution

The last stage of grief is resolution and it is during this stage that we enter a renewed state of reorganization and acceptance. We are not happy about the loss or our breast, but we see that we can live without it. The resolution stage often brings us insight into our life and ourselves that builds character, produces wisdom and helps us better deal with emotions after mastectomy.


During the resolution stage our mood lifts and we find we are able to experience joy again. This is also a time when we become grateful for what we have and want to give back. Volunteerism, such as in breast cancer support organizations, frequently accompanies this last stage of grief.


If you give yourself the room to go through the emotions after mastectomy, you will move forward into the resolution stage of grief where you begin to feel acceptance. You will want to take back control of your life by becoming pro-active again. Priorities become redefined and life goals are re-established.


Your overall emotions after mastectomy may actually be a blend of loss and gain. Initially, it may have felt like a horrible loss but, as you move through the process, you discover some advantages that come along with your body changes.


Emotions After Mastectomy: Automatic Behaviour

There is also something called automatic behaviour that often accompanies the grief process. This is what is happening when we don’t get our routine behaviours quite right and we start to feel like we are going crazy. As we process our emotions after mastectomy, we become distracted from life’s little details, and this natural preoccupation results in poor concentration while attending to daily tasks.


As a result of automatic behaviour, you may find yourself putting the cereal into the refrigerator and the milk into the cupboard, squeezing a tube of skin cream instead of toothpaste onto your toothbrush, or seeing that the traffic light has turned red but not really registering it, and driving right through. This is common when dealing with emotions after mastectomy.


Your short-term memory can also be affected because good concentration is required for the memory to work well. Do not panic over these lapses. They are temporary. However, it is helpful to remember that automatic behaviour is normal and after mastectomy, emotions are scattered, so you can safeguard yourself.


When you set out to drive, remind yourself that you are prone to poor concentration and constantly remind yourself to tune into the “here and now.” Or perhaps, ask a friend to drive until you feel your focus and concentration return after the emotions after mastectomy subside.


How Long Do Emotions After Mastectomy Last?

The significance you attach to your loss will determine how long your grieving process will last and how intensely you will feel it. Grief from losing a small purchase you just made may last only minutes, whereas a significant loss such as the death of a close friend, a divorce, or a house burning down may take years. Emotions after mastectomy work in a similar way.


Significant losses are often brought to mind by special events and seasons associated with the loss and these triggers can create new emotional pain. Most women take about two years before they report feeling fairly resolved about the loss of a breast, and at ease with their emotions after mastectomy.


Emotions After Mastectomy: What to Expect?

Your most intense grieving will probably happen close to the time of your surgery, but you will likely continue to experience some grief from your mastectomy for the rest of your life. You may feel that you have just started to accept your loss just when something else seems to set it off again and your post-mastectomy emotions resurface.


It may be three years later, when you are faced with having to find an evening dress for an elegant wedding that you suddenly feel the tears bubbling up again. You may want to scream and stamp your feet at the unfairness of only being able to consider a quarter of the dresses because of the changes to your body.


Twenty years after your surgery your best friend or daughter may be diagnosed with breast cancer and you may find yourself reliving some of the emotions from your own mastectomy as you walk through the process with her. All of these feelings are normal. Every woman grieves in her own way and in her own time.