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Grief about life with metastatic breast cancer

It’s common to feel many different emotions after a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. One of those feelings may be grief, a deep sadness and distress caused by loss.


Most people think of grief as an emotion caused by the death of a loved one, friend, or family member. But events other than death can bring on grief. We sometimes feel grief at the loss of things we thought we’d always have: our sense of self, our physical abilities, even our future plans.

Everyone experiences grief in their own way. It may affect you differently than others living with metastatic breast cancer. Many people cry when they grieve, while some don’t cry at all. It’s important to know that if you don’t cry, nothing is wrong with you. Not crying doesn’t mean you’re not grieving. Grief is very personal, and how you cope with it will be unique to you.


Why am I grieving?

Metastatic breast cancer brings major changes to your life. Your health and wellness suddenly become a central point of focus. You may find you have to quickly learn a lot about breast cancer, treatment needs, and health insurance, among other things.

But your everyday life doesn’t stop because of cancer, and this is often why people feel grief. Knowing that treatment, side effects, and physical issues may change the plans you have now or in the future can leave you grieving the life you thought you would live – and that’s OK.

Anniversary grief

Sometimes, grief comes on specific dates or around certain times of year that remind you of a negative event or loss. This is called anniversary grief.
As someone with metastatic breast cancer, anniversary grief might connect to the date of your diagnosis or the first time you had to change treatment because one stopped working. You may not even remember the anniversary date or realize that the date is coming up, but still feel the sadness and stress it brings.

Some people find it helps to plan for dates that trigger grief. Doing an activity you enjoy on anniversaries may distract you, or help you focus on positive feelings and thoughts. Connecting with friends, family, or loved ones during these times might help as well. You could also start a new tradition on cancer anniversaries to start framing them in a different way.

Anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief happens when you think about what you expect to lose because of metastatic breast cancer. It’s called “anticipatory grief” because the loss hasn’t happened yet – you’re anticipating it will come in the future.

The thought of losing things like your job, your independence, your energy, and your life can lead to anticipatory grief. So can the worry that you won’t do or experience life events important to you, like getting married or seeing your children or grandchildren grow up. You may grieve the thought of close friends becoming distant or worry you’ll be left out of activities you love because people don’t want to bother you.

Everyone copes with anticipatory grief differently. If you’re concerned about losing your energy or independence, it may help to focus on what you will still be able to do, not on what you might lose. Think ahead about ways to prioritize how you want to spend your time and energy so that you’re able to do activities or go to events important to you. Making a plan for how others can help you and how your body changes may help. If you worry about missing loved one’s birthdays, pre-write cards and ask a trusted friend or family member to deliver them when the time comes. Talking to family and friends about what you want to do, or not do, can help them understand what support you need right now.


What does grief feel like?

Grief appears in many forms. For many, it’s emotional: you may feel sad, angry, afraid, or lonely, even when with other people. Some people feel guilt. It’s also possible to feel numb, or like nothing matters. These feelings may come and go over time.

It’s also possible to feel grief with your body. You may get sick more easily or generally feel unwell. You may not feel hungry as often, or find that you skip meals without noticing. Some people get body aches and sore muscles or joints that seem to have no cause. Grief can even cause anxiety that makes your heart flutter or beat faster.

You may only feel emotional impacts of grief, or only physical ones – or a mix of the two. There is no “normal.” Share your feelings with your care team, especially if they last a long time or impact your day-to-day life.


How long does grief last?

How long grief lasts varies from person to person. You may grieve heavily for a short period, and then find the feeling eases. Or, you might grieve for a longer period and work through the feelings more slowly. There is no standard.

Most people see grief lessen over time as they get used to the loss or change they’re experiencing. Right now you may feel the loss is so great, or the change so sudden, that you’ll never feel OK with it. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge those feelings. It takes time, but you will eventually start to feel better or more at ease.


What can I do to feel better now?

Working through grief takes time. The most important thing you can do is allow yourself to feel it. Expressing feelings helps much more than holding them in. Some people feel better once they talk about what they’re going through with a trusted friend or family member; others prefer writing privately in a journal, or writing letters that they can tear up and throw away.

Other actions you can take include:

  • Doing your best to get enough sleep.
  • Trying to eat healthy, nutritious meals.
  • Taking time to exercise in whatever way you like best.
  • Following a daily routine.
  • Being kind to yourself, and allowing some days to be better or worse than others.
  • Doing an activity to take a break from the grief. Expressing your feelings through art, music or dance.
  • Participating in a support group.
  • Avoiding alcohol or other drugs, which can make grief feel worse.

What if I don't feel better?

Coping with grief is complicated, and sometimes we can’t do it alone. Many people find comfort and support in talking to a mental health professional or joining a peer support group. Social workers at your cancer center can help you find support groups in person and online.

Reach out to a professional provider if:

  • You feel like life isn’t worth living.
  • You have thoughts of harming yourself or ending your life.
    • If you feel this way, we strongly encourage you to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. This hotline provides free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • You find you’re noting taking good care of yourself day-to-day, such as eating too much or too little or not keeping good hygiene.
  • You lose interest in talking to or stop seeing family and friends, even when they stop by, call or text, or you have trouble speaking with people.
  • You feel empty and detached from others and the world around you for more than a few weeks.
  • You start drinking too much alcohol, using illegal drugs, or abusing prescription drugs

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Reviewed and updated: October 11, 2019

Reviewed by: Kelly Grosklags, LICSW, BCD, FAAGC, FT


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