Coping with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can be challenging. Reaching out to others for support and developing strategies to manage difficult days with breast cancer is important.
We talked with breast cancer survivor Epiphany Wallner-Haas to learn which resources and strategies she’s found most helpful for managing difficult days with breast cancer.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
Cancer can be hard in every aspect of your life. It can be hard physically, mentally, spiritually, even financially.
And it’s important to find something to help you in each of those areas.
After receiving my diagnosis, I immediately started to learn about cancer, health and wellness, and the medical system. I’m organized, and in any way that I can combat things, I will. Yes, I’ll go the medical route, but I’ll also look at the mental aspects.
One of the first things I did was join Breastcancer.org’s communities. I’ve been a part of their communities for over a year, especially their Zoom support group. It’s been absolutely phenomenal.
I learned so much from the women who were ahead of me in the treatment cycle. They told me: “You’ll go through a cycle where you’ll feel really bad the first week after getting your infusion. Then, you’ll feel OK the second week. You’ll feel almost like you used to by the third week. Then, they’ll give you another infusion. You’ll do that cycle four, six, or eight times.”
I ended up doing 6 rounds of chemotherapy infusions and then had a mastectomy. After my mastectomy, I did 25 rounds of radiation, then 10 more rounds of another chemo.
I started to realize there were women in the support group who were in the same phase of treatment as me, and it was almost like they were there with me.
I remember when I was preparing for radiation. The technicians kept saying, “OK, someone will tell you how it’s gonna go.” But my first radiation session came. I was lying in the machine. They were positioning me, and then they just left. I started having a panic attack. I was scared and upset because they told me that someone was going to explain how the radiation would go — and no one did.
So, of course, I complained about it to my ladies on the forum. Then I realized one of them was going through radiation, too. The next time I went in for radiation and started having that panicky feeling, I remembered that my friend was also going through this. And if she can do this, so can I.
It made a world of difference because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
The thing that’s really helped me on bad days is sleep.
Also, drink water. It helps get the bad stuff out of your system faster.
I know that people are like, “Oh, they probably want food. We should give them lasagna or something.” But I didn’t want food when I was having chemo. I wanted teas, electrolyte drinks, and smoothies.
I made an almost mini apartment in my room. Our master bedroom has its own bathroom. I put a filtered water dispenser, a mini fridge, and a microwave in my bedroom. I just lived in that cocoon on my bad days.
When I was feeling the physical side effects of a treatment cycle, I remembered something one of my friends told me: “Everything is a phase.” The hard parts are a phase, and the good parts are a phase. That helped me through the physically hard times. When my stomach had that “ick” feeling, it was just a phase. The next week, it would be OK, and it would gradually get better.
But that phase motto doesn’t help me mentally when my thoughts are, “Oh, the cancer is spreading,” or “Oh, I’m not going to make it; this isn’t working.” Instead, I use a strategy I learned from my support group. If I feel like the cancer cells are floating around and going to other places, I think, “OK, body! White blood cells, go and attack any cancer cells.” I think about it at that cellular level.
The other thing that was reassuring was learning about the advancements in breast cancer treatment technology. Every time I turn around, I hear about new treatment advancements.
Everybody’s different. Some people want to be left alone, while others want to be surrounded by their loved ones. For me, I wanted people around for certain things.
It helped for someone to be there on my infusion days. It was reassuring to know I wasn’t alone. Those infusion days were also long endeavors, so it helped me to pass the time and catch up or watch a movie together on my iPad. It helped me to recognize that even though I was in the middle of cancer treatment, life didn’t stop.
Also, it wasn’t always the same people. For my first infusion, my husband was there. I had my mom, friends, and stepmom. It was a nice rotation. It felt like I was never alone in this, like I had people at my back fighting with me.
Epiphany Wallner-Haas is a 36-year-old breast cancer survivor who lives with her loving husband and 3-year-old son in Chicago, Illinois. She works as an IT consultant, conducting program and project management. She first noticed changes to her breast in February 2022 and received a diagnosis of stage 3B breast cancer. She has received a combination of breast cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation therapy, and multiple types of medication.