The Mental Health Impact of Receiving a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

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Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can evoke a range of emotions from shock to anger to sadness. Yet, as the focus shifts to fighting the physical disease, the mental health impacts of the diagnosis may be overlooked.

In reality, though, a breast cancer diagnosis can have multiple mental health consequences, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Not only can these take a serious emotional toll on patients, but they can also potentially even play a role in the success of a patient's cancer treatment.

This article will outline the potential mental health impact of a breast cancer diagnosis and discuss the factors that could make mental health issues more likely in the wake of a diagnosis. It will then explore ways to cope with and treat the mental health challenges that can come with a diagnosis of breast cancer.

The Mental Health Effects of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

There is no one way to respond to a breast cancer diagnosis. Some people may scream and cry, some may go numb, and some may get angry. Because each patient is different, each response will be different.

However, there are some common mental health impacts of a breast cancer diagnosis that a considerable percentage of patients experience. A 2021-study found these fell into the following four categories:

  1. Non-specific psychological distress
  2. Depression
  3. Anxiety
  4. Post-traumatic stress

Psychological Distress

The study found that approximately 39% of people experienced clinically significant symptoms of distress after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

That makes distress (that includes negative feelings but doesn’t qualify for a diagnosis of depression or anxiety) the most common mental health consequence of a breast cancer diagnosis.

Distress can also include physical symptoms like increased blood pressure, respiratory rate, or heart rate. Due to its prevalence among breast cancer patients, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends that patients undergo screenings for distress regularly between diagnosis and remission.

Clinical Depression

Studies that have explored the prevalence of clinical depression in patients following a breast cancer diagnosis have found between 20% and 38.2% show symptoms of this mental health disorder.

While many patients may feel sad or overwhelmed following a breast cancer diagnosis, if you continue to feel sad or hopeless for weeks afterward to the point where those feelings begin to impact your day-to-day life, you may have depression.

There are a number of symptoms of depression, including:

  • Frequent crying
  • Losing interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Isolating from others
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Crisis Support

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor about getting help. If you’re thinking about harming yourself, you should go to the hospital or call 911 immediately.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

A breast cancer diagnosis is bound to be a source of stress, however, when that stress becomes excessive to the point where an individual spends most of their time worrying, it may reflect an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder.

This worry may also be accompanied by symptoms such as restlessness and irritability, an inability to concentrate, fatigue or difficulty sleeping, and increased muscle aches and soreness. Some research indicates that approximately 34% of breast cancer patients experience anxiety.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When people are exposed to the threat of death or bodily harm, they may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies have shown this can include people who’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis.

PTSD symptoms can include:

  • Nightmares or flashbacks related to the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of thoughts or external reminders of the trauma
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Inability to remember parts of the traumatic event
  • Persistent negative emotions like fear, anger, and guilt
  • Feelings of alienation or detachment

One study found that 31% of breast cancer patients experience PTSD, while another discovered that although a majority of patients experienced PTSD symptoms, very few met the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of the disorder.

Causes of Mental Health Issues Following a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

A diagnosis of breast cancer can be devastating, leading to concerns about sexual function, body image, and other impacts of the illness, in addition to concerns about the treatment of the disease itself. While this is enough to impact anyone’s mental health, there are some factors that make mental health issues more likely, including:

  • Being a woman younger than 40
  • Having young children
  • Being male
  • A history of mental health issues prior to diagnosis
  • Previous trauma
  • Lack of social support
  • Financial difficulties
  • Health problems besides breast cancer

In addition, cancer treatments like chemotherapy and hormone therapies have significant side effects that can increase the risk of becoming depressed, as can factors like early menopause or issues with fertility brought on by certain treatments.

Coping With the Mental Health Consequences

One noteworthy way to cope with the distress of a breast cancer diagnosis is to find a healthcare provider that is willing to spend the time to educate you about your diagnosis as well as your potential treatment options and their side effects.

This can give you the ability to weigh in on decisions about your treatment, giving you some sense of control over the situation and alleviating feelings of helplessness and the desire to avoid or deny reminders of your diagnosis.

Social support is also key to coping with a breast cancer diagnosis. Some patients might want to reach out to trusted friends or family members or seek out support in their communities, such as within religious organizations. For some people, support groups, which are available in-person or online, can be helpful for providing either emotional support, education, or both.

Social Media Support

Social media groups, such as Facebook groups made up of breast cancer patients, may also be a source of support for those who are comfortable with them. Patients may want different kinds of social support at different times during their treatment for breast cancer, and healthcare providers should be able to provide information on a variety of forms of social support.


Many patients may seek out the help of a counselor or therapist in the wake of a breast cancer diagnosis, but this option becomes especially important if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms associated with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. A therapist will be able to diagnose your symptoms and develop a treatment plan.

If you’re diagnosed with a mental health condition, you may also consider taking medication. However, it’s important to know that some studies have shown that several popular antidepressants can interact with the breast cancer treatment tamoxifen, inhibiting the treatment's impact on the disease. On the other hand, there are medications for depression that may be less likely to interfere with tamoxifen.

It’s imperative that everyone on your healthcare team, from your oncologist to your therapist, know about all the medication you’re taking so they can avoid any adverse drug interactions.

Your doctor should be able to provide the names of mental health providers who specialize in breast cancer patients, which will enable you to find the therapist and mental health treatment option that’s right for you.

A Word From Verywell

It's understandable if you're feeling intense emotions after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. The uncertainty may feel very daunting. It's OK to let yourself express all of your feelings. Reach out to a mental health professional if you're having a hard time coming to terms with your diagnosis.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.