Living with secondary breast cancer

Finding out that your breast cancer has spread

When you hear the news that your breast cancer has spread, you may experience a mixture of emotions. Some people say that the diagnosis of secondary breast cancer is more traumatic than when they were first diagnosed, because the hope of a cure is replaced with the realisation that this is no longer possible.

Feelings can range from disbelief, denial and shock to anger, numbness and helplessness. You may feel as though you are on an emotional rollercoaster. You may be angry, making you short-tempered with those around you. Your mind may race ahead with worries about what is going to happen. You may be concerned for people close to you or disappointed about plans that may not go ahead.

“You know when I was told, I didn’t feel angry. I didn’t have the energy to waste on being angry. I thought, I’ve got to fight this.” Colleen
“The breast cancer doctor and his nurse came in. They were all very serious and said it was back. I had been so convinced that it wasn’t going to be cancer I hadn’t worried.” Stephanie

A small number of people find out they have breast cancer when it has already spread from their breast to another part of their body. In the first days or weeks after your diagnosis you may find it hard to think clearly. It may take time to get things into perspective and start to take some control of your situation.Many people feel that there is nothing they can do when they are told they have cancer. They feel out of control and helpless for a while. However, there are practical ways you can help yourself.

Emotional support to cope with your reactions

Hearing that you have secondary breast cancer may bring up a range of emotional reactions. You may feel angry, resentful or let down. It is common to feel that you are no longer in control of your body or your life.

It is not known exactly why some cancers spread, but it may be reassuring to know that there was nothing you could have done differently to prevent it.

Coping with the diagnosis will be an ongoing process for you, your family/whānau and your friends. There are no easy answers when it comes to facing a life-changing illness. Every person is different and will find their own way of coping with their difficult situation. Talking with family/whānau and friends may give loved ones the opportunity they have been waiting for to offer support.

Talking to someone outside the family/whānau may also be helpful. A counsellor or hospital chaplain can be good sources of support for many people, whatever their spiritual beliefs.

“A group of friends gathered together for an afternoon so that I could make my announcement. And that was really great. They were able to say, ‘What is it we can do?’ which was neat.” Colleen

Psychological, counselling and social worker support

No matter how you are feeling, support services are available to you. If you speak to your GP they can refer you to someone such as a counsellor or psychologist who can help you work through feelings of loss and grief.

Psychologists and counsellors

• encourage you to talk about any fears, worries or emotions you may be feeling

• help you to work through feelings of loss or grief • help you to resolve problems so that you can find more pleasure in your life

• teach you ways to handle any anxiety you may have• show you meditation or relaxation exercises to help ease physical and emotional pain

• can help you to communicate better with your family/whānau. 

To find a psychologist or counsellor, contact your GP, your local Cancer Society or phone the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Social workers

Social workers are available to help support you and your family/whānau through the social and emotional changes a cancer diagnosis brings. If you do not already have a social worker, your cancer treatment team can arrange a referral. Social workers:

  •  provide information and support to help you manage the impacts your cancer may have on you and your family/whānau
  • help to set up support services, including help at home (domestic assistance) and help with personal care, so that you can stay independent at home
  • help with accommodation for you and your family/whānau if you need to travel away from home for treatment
  •  help make travel arrangements if you are having treatment out of town
  • offer advice and information about financial support available
  • make referrals to other support agencies
  • take part in multidisciplinary meetings.

Cultural and spiritual support

Hospitals throughout New Zealand have trained health workers available to support your spiritual, cultural and advocacy needs. They may include Māori and Pacific health workers who will work with you and your family/whānau. Hospital chaplains are available to offer support through prayer and quiet reflection. Community-based health workers at your local marae and Pacific health services may also be good sources of support.

Tautoko ā-ahurea, ā-wairua hokiKa whai ngā hōhipera huri noa i te motu i ngā kaimahi hauora kua whakangungutia hei tautoko i ō hiahiatanga ā-wairua, a-ahurea, ā-whaitaua hoki. Tērā pea, hē puna āwhina ngā kaimahi hauora kei tō marae ā-rohe, kei tētahi ratonga hauora Moana-nui-ā-Kiwa rānei. E wātea ana hoki ngā minita ō te hōhipera ki ngā tangata katoa, ahakoa te whakapono, te kore whakapono rānei, me tā rātou whakarato tautoko mā te karakia me te hurihuringa mārie. Kōrero ki tō rōpū atawhai hauora mō ngā ratonga e wātea ana.

Traditional Māori healing

Traditional healing has been an integral part of Māori culture for generations. Values, belief systems and teachings from kaumātua and tohunga alike have seen Māori focus on total wellbeing encompassing taha tinana, taha hinengaro, taha wairua and taha whānau (the physical domain, the domain of mind and behaviour, the spiritual domain and the family/whānau or social domain).

When Māori are faced with tough decisions on health care or treatment, some opt for traditional healing methods. These can include rongoā Māori, romiromi or mirimiri, to name a few customary remedies based on native plants, massage therapy and spiritual healing. If you are thinking about using these treatments, please talk about them with your treatment team.

Both parties aim to provide you with the best possible care that has minimal side effects. If you have difficulty expressing your needs to your treatment providers, find someone to advocate on your behalf so that both traditional Māori healers and hospital treatment specialists are able to work together to support you on your cancer journey.

Hauora Māori Mai rā anō te hauora Māori i noho ai hei wāhanga ō te ahurea Māori. Nā ngā uaratanga, te pūnaha whakapono me ngā akoranga a ngā kaumātua me ngā tohunga i kitea ai te arotahi a te Māori ki te oranga kotahi e rarawhi ana i te taha tinana, te taha hinengaro, te taha wairua me te taha whānau.Ka huri ētahi Māori ki ngā kaupapa hauora Māori i ētahi wā mēnā he uaua ki te whakatau ko tēhea, ko tēhea ō ngā momo maimoa me whai. Tae noa rā ki te rongoā Māori, te romiromi, te mirimiri rānei, hei tauira atu. Ka hāngai katoa ki tarutaru otaota whenua me ngā rākau, te haumanu romiromi me te whakaoranga ā-wairua.Mehemea he uaua ki te korere i ō hiahia ki ngā kaiwhakarato maimoatanga, rapua tētahi tangata hei kaitaunaki mōu, kia āhei ai ngā tohunga hauora me matanga maimoa ō ngā hōhipera ki te mahi ngātahi.

Pacific traditional healing

Traditional healing has long been used by Pacific people to help in recovery. It involves taking a holistic approach to treating the person, where their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual needs are looked after together, rather than as separate parts. The treatment offered to each person depends on their needs. Medicinal plants and herbs may be used during the treatment process, as well as stones and massage. 

It is possible to use both Western and traditional medicine as part of your healing journey. Each has its place and benefits.You may think that the doctor and the traditional healer do not need to know about what each other is doing. But it is important that they do in order to make sure that the medicines you are taking are working well together and they are not causing any problems.

Traditional plant medicines can sometimes react with Western medications.If you find it hard to tell your doctor or nurses about the traditional healing methods being used by your healer, it may be helpful for your doctor or nurses to talk directly to your healer or even a close family/whānau member who knows what treatments you are receiving.

Complementary and alternative therapies

Complementary therapies are massage, meditation, acupuncture and other relaxation methods that are used alongside medical treatments. They may help you to feel better and cope more easily with your cancer treatment.

“When it was painful I transported myself to the market at home with fresh fruit. I remembered songs that have no words that reminded me of home, like streams and natural sounds. I imagined myself at moments throughout my lifetime—special places on the beach, certain things we did as children. I took myself there.” Silei

Alternative therapies include some herbal and dietary methods, which are used instead of medical treatment. Many are promoted as cancer cures. However, none of these methods have been proven to be effective in treating cancer.

It is important to let your cancer treatment team know if you are taking any complementary or alternative therapies, because some treatments may be harmful if they are taken at the same time as medical treatments.

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