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Managing Breast Cancer, COVID-19, and the Winter Blues

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As much as the winter season can be joyous, it can also be a time of loneliness and anxiety for people managing cancer — especially with the added isolation due to COVID-19.

During a recent webinar, licensed clinical social workers Kelly Grosklags, LICSW, BCD, and Shirley Otis-Green, MSW, MA, ACSW, LCSW, OSW-C, FNAP, answered questions from the Breastcancer.org community and discussed tips for managing emotional health during this exceptionally difficult winter season. Taking care of your mental and emotional health is important to Breastcancer.org, and we hope you find comfort in the ideas they shared. Here are some of their tips.

Acknowledge your feelings

While it may seem easier to ignore the feelings you may be having during this difficult winter, it’s better to acknowledge and accept how you’re feeling, good or bad.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Grosklags said. “We have to honor and embrace where we’re at. We’re in a time right now that we don’t know how to be, and wherever you’re at is where you are, and that is OK.”

Thinking about the future and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic can feel overwhelming. Watch this clip to hear Kelly Grosklags explain how to focus on the present, use mantras, and feel reassured about your resiliency.

Recognize the ebb and flow of emotions

When you’re feeling bad or having a tough time, it can sometimes seem as though the hard days will never end. But Shirley Otis-Green said that the practice of polarity thinking — recognizing that moments of good and bad can happen during the same period — can be helpful.

“The key here is to recognize there are moments of sadness, but also there will be moments of joy,” she said. “And there is an ebb and flow in emotions.”

Remembering the old adage of “this, too, shall pass,” is a good way to gain a sense of control over negative emotions.

“Our feelings are transient, and we have some measure of control over those feelings,” Otis-Green said. “The good thing about that is it’s an empowering way of thinking about those emotions.”

Otis-Green suggested journaling as a means of recognizing the ebb and flow of emotions.

“Keeping a journal on some regular level, you get to see that things change,” she said. “It’s a nice visual reminder that things can change, and there’s some symbolism in writing it down that gives us a more objective point of view.”

Watch this video clip to hear Shirley Otis-Green talk about navigating complex feelings, such as sadness and happiness, at the same time. Recognizing the ebb and flow of feelings can provide hope.

Share your feelings

Acknowledging and accepting your feelings doesn’t mean you have to shoulder them alone. It’s important to remember that your emotions are valid, and it’s OK to ask family, friends, or even a therapist for support as you process those feelings.

“One of the things that’s really important is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable,” Grosklags said. “Whether that’s through telling somebody, writing somebody, texting — we get into this mindset that everyone is going through this, too, so what right do I have to share my feelings?”

And that practice of sharing is not only for negative feelings — sharing happiness is important, too.

“When we share our grief or suffering, we can cut that in half, and when we share our joy, we can double it,” Grosklags said.

Watch this video clip to hear Kelly Grosklags share tips on being creative about connecting when we can’t be together physically.

Nurture your body

The winter blues and seasonal depression may seem like purely mental and emotional conditions, but there are physical connections to our mental health. People, particularly those living in northern states, should make sure they’re getting enough sunlight and outdoor time. Making sure your vitamin D levels are normal is important, too. And getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious diet can also positively affect mood. These practices are especially helpful for those in active breast cancer treatment who may feel physically diminished due to chemotherapy or radiation.

Take back your time

One major source of stress for some people during the holiday season is the busy schedule of celebrations that can sometimes feel overwhelming. And while that is likely different for most this year with COVID-19 limiting in-person gatherings, some are experiencing a new stressor in the form of declining invitations from well-meaning loved ones who still plan to gather despite the pandemic.

“Be selective on how you spend your energy,” said Grosklags. “This is your permission to say 'no.' If you’re overbooked, look at where you can go in and have some empowerment and something you can change. If you’re feeling fear of being left out, tell someone that. If you have too many obligations, make sure they’re things you really want to do.”

And Grosklags said this is the year to get creative with how you celebrate, especially for metastatic breast cancer patients who may feel as though they have to make the most of their remaining time. If you and your loved ones don’t feel safe gathering now, she suggested making plans to mark the holiday when you do feel comfortable.

“It’s not uncommon to feel like time is so precious and want to live big,” she said. “This year, what I’m reminding people of is we don’t necessarily have to celebrate on the actual day. It’s OK to reschedule, and it’s really important for us to feel like we have some options.”

Create a ritual

With a new year upon us, there’s an urge to celebrate the end of one moment in time and the beginning of another. And while popping the cork amid a crowd isn’t the best idea this year, there are other, quieter rituals you can adopt to mark the passage of time and honor those who aren’t with you.

Grosklags suggested purchasing a three-wick candle for a lighting ritual. Each wick is lighted separately, symbolizing the past, present, and future, with a blessing said for each. She said the exercise is meant to allow participants to honor the past, accept the present, and find strength to face an unknown future.

“People living with cancer or with grief, in this time now we have to become comfortable with living with uncertainty,” she said. “We light that candle and ask for the wisdom to get through those times, to get through the vulnerability.”

Watch this clip to hear Kelly Grosklags describe this three-wick candle ritual.

Above all, both Grosklags and Otis-Green agreed this winter is a time to be gentle with yourself, both physically and mentally, and give yourself the flexibility to adapt to situations that are out of your control. As people whose lives have been affected by breast cancer, that’s a lesson that will benefit long after the season is over.

“You are able to deal with things that others have not,” said Otis-Green. “You have been able to deal with hearing those words and getting up the next morning. You’ve gone through treatment and said, ‘I can’t do it again,’ but you did.”

For more information, watch the full one-hour video on managing cancer, COVID-19, and seasonal blues.

Remember, you are not alone in how you’re feeling. We welcome you to connect, learn, and share in the Breastcancer.org online community. It’s a safe place to find peer support from people who understand what you’re experiencing.

Written by: Jennifer Bringle, contributing writer

This content was developed with contributions from the following experts:

Kelly Grosklags, LICSW, BCD, FAAGC

Shirley Otis-Green, MSW, MA, ACSW, LCSW, OSW-C, FNAP


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