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Caring for your mental health


If you have a child or children when you are diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re likely to worry about how your condition might affect your children. Most parents believe that they should put their children’s needs and well-being above their own. But self-care, taking care of yourself and your mental health, will better equip you to give your kids support. And self-care will help you manage your physical and emotional needs as well.

White woman sitting, looking stressed

What is self-care?

Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Self-care is not selfish. You can be mindful of your own needs and use self-care activities even if you are caring for others. There are many ways to give yourself self-care — such as setting time to relax, doing an activity you enjoy or getting out into nature — and what works for you will depend on your needs and preferences.


Why self-care matters

Self-care is important after a breast cancer diagnosis. You are dealing with a lot, both physically and emotionally. Taking time to care for yourself can help you deal with cancer-related issues and keep them from interfering in your relationships with family and friends. When you give attention to your physical, mental, and emotional health, meeting your own needs becomes an act of love for yourself and for those you love.

Self-care can help you heal, lessen side effects, and strengthen you. By taking simple self-care steps to identify and address your own needs, you may feel less stressed and have more energy for yourself and for your children.


Emotions, stresses, and challenges you may face as a parent

As a parent diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s normal to feel many emotions. Your emotions and thoughts may range from worry, sadness, and anger, to encouragement and hope. Your feelings may change throughout the treatment process. Your feelings also be impacted by what’s happening medically or personally.

You might want to just charge through treatment and ignore troubling emotions, but your mental health deserves attention along with your physical health. Self-care can help you feel better.

You may have emotional stress from any of these parental concerns:

  • Telling your children about your diagnosis.
  • Children’s reactions to how treatment affects you. Your children may get sad or angry when you are too tired to play or you have to miss an event. This can be upsetting for you.
  • Changes in household routine. Some women feel guilt or frustration when doctor’s appointments or fatigue keep them from doing activities like shopping or cutting the grass. Asking older children to help more or relying more on a babysitter during appointments can also cause stress. Side effects such as nausea, pain, and tiredness can leave you unable to be emotionally or physically available to your children the way you were before. These may get in the way of you helping with homework, attending sports practices or being able to cuddle comfortably.
  • Behavior changes in children. Children might become more clingy, avoid school, fight more often, or act irritable or sad.
  • Anxiety, fear or depression that you are experiencing and your worry about its effects on your kids.
  • Needing to ask a partner, ex-partner, relatives, neighbors or members of your religious community to become more involved in child care, schoolwork, and activities.
  • Effects of financial and time pressures, or work loss, on kids’ activities and expectations.
  • Children’s questions about whether you might die and what would happen to them.

At-home self-care strategies

Caring for yourself is important for helping you relieve stress, manage treatments, and heal physically and emotionally.

These self-care tips can help:

  • Schedule time for yourself, to take a break from daily concerns, have fun and refresh your spirits.
    • Ask a friend to take your kids for a few hours so you can have time alone that’s not spent in a doctor’s office.
    • Go to a movie, walk in a park or natural area, or sit in a restaurant and people-watch. If you’ve been feeling lonely, meet up with a friend or go to a community program or event.
    • Plan “me time” every week. Set a specific day and time.
  • Schedule time with your partner:
    • If you are in a relationship, one aspect of self care that you may want to consider is paying attention to your relationship. Make time to connect with your partner without the kids. If you can find child care, try to go for a walk, dinner or any activity that suits your energy level. If you cannot find childcare, you can watch a movie at home after the kids go to sleep.
  • Nurture yourself with healthy foods that can improve your energy and help you feel stronger.
    • Look for vegetables and fruits in season, when they are most affordable and taste best. Many need no cooking — just wash, cut, and enjoy. Refrigerate for snacking or for when you feel tired. Keep no-prep foods like bananas, baby carrots, and grapes on hand for a quick snack.
    • Stick with lean protein, such as chicken, eggs, non-oily fish, and tofu instead of beef. Avoid fried or greasy dishes.
    • If you’re having trouble eating, make smoothies with low-fat milk or yogurt and fresh or frozen fruits.
  • Give your body and mind the sleep you need with these tips to follow before going to bed.
    • Use deep breathing techniques to reduce anxiety. Inhale while counting to four, hold to a count of seven, then exhale completely. Repeat three times slowly.
    • Avoid drinks with caffeine, alcohol or eating.
    • Break up with your phone for half an hour before bedtime. The light from the screen interferes with sleep cycles (the same is true for computer and TV screens).
    • Make your bedroom dark and cool.
  • Ease stress through movement activities and breathing exercises.
    • Yoga, mindfulness meditation, and other relaxation techniques help lower tension.
    • Physical activity can lift your mood and you don’t need to exercise hard. You can feel better just from walking, biking, swimming or other gentle movement.
    • Take time every day, even if only for a few minutes, to move your body and relax your breathing.

To learn more about managing stress with these kinds of techniques, visit our page on emotional health.


Finding social and emotional support

You can find other parents who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and find social and emotional support in a support group. You may find these parents through groups or organizations that meet in person, online or over the phone.

Having such connections can help you feel less alone and better able to handle emotional stresses. This may help you cope with the ups and downs experienced throughout the treatment process or beyond. Social and emotional support also can strengthen you as a parent, to help your children through a challenging time.

Ask your oncology team where you might find support groups with others in your situation or individual parents who might meet with you. Trusted friends, members of your faith community or a local breast cancer organization can also recommend ways to connect.

Support groups may meet online, in-person, and even by phone. Groups form around different topics and may or may not have a professional group leader participate. Some are run by peers who don’t have formal training. You may be more comfortable with one group or format. Try attending a few times before deciding if the group is right for you.

You can also make virtual connections with other parents affected by breast cancer through online communities, such as private Facebook groups, discussion boards, and email lists hosted by cancer organizations. These give you access to support when you don’t live near a group or other affected parents and can’t fit an online meeting into your schedule.

If you want to talk to a peer who has been through breast cancer while raising kids, reach out to LBBC’s Helpline at (888) 753-LBBC (5222). A trained volunteer can speak to you about their experience and give advice.


When to seek professional help

It is possible that you might feel intense stress or sadness, or negative thoughts and worries that don’t go away even if you use these self-care techniques. When these emotions get in the way of your work or home life, you should consider getting in touch with an oncology social worker or psychologist for more help.

People with or without cancer seek the help of a professional counselor or therapist for many reasons. Professional counselors or therapists can listen to your thoughts and feelings in a confidential setting and provide insight into your distress and guide you towards solutions. Professional counselors and therapists are trained to listen to their clients with empathy and non-judgement. Unlike talking to friends or family members, when you might worry about causing distress, you can be more open with a therapist. You can decide to talk with a counselor on your own or have sessions that include your partner or children.

Professional counseling can help you ease anxiety and depression and problem-solve situations you find worrisome. Taking care of your emotional health is good for you and for those you care for.

Your oncologist might be able to help you find mental health professionals who specialize in counseling people with cancer. Hospital social work departments also may have a list of local counselors.


Related resources


This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U58 DP005403, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.


Reviewed and updated: September 25, 2017

Reviewed by: Sabitha Pillai-Friedman, PhD, LCSW


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