Are the Loved Ones of Breast Cancer Patients More Likely to Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While it’s true that breast cancer never takes a break from the lives it thrusts itself upon, it’s nice to see increased awareness and support in the general public via breast cancer awareness campaigns, 5K runs, community outreach programs and social media efforts. For families that have been personally affected by breast cancer, it’s somewhat humbling to know that there are other families out there going through the same struggles. Yet just as each family is unique, so are their battles.

One aspect of cancer that people often don’t talk about is self medicating. It’s one of the scary and damaging side effects of cancer that can affect the patient and their family. Many times, the person doesn’t even realize that they are using drugs or alcohol to push away the sadness and worry. It becomes natural and accepted to come home and have that drink every night. It’s understood why a teen would start experimenting with drugs.

Breast cancer does take its toll on a family, but instead of quietly accepting self medication as a valid form of treatment, it’s important to recognize its risk and long-term consequences.

Understanding Self Medication

The last thing a family dealing with breast cancer needs is to also have an addiction to treat. That’s why families should be educated on the signs and symptoms of self medication and how to treat it. Self medication is a behavior where people use substances to compensate for underlying problems. In this particular case, a family member diagnosed with breast cancer would be the underlying source of pain. To deal with these feelings, loved ones may be more likely to use drugs and alcohol.

A better approach is to ensure that family members receive professional help from a counselor, therapist or clergy member following a cancer diagnosis. This gives everyone a chance to talk about their feelings and come to terms with what is going on.

Unfortunately, when dealing with breast cancer, it’s a natural response to put the patient’s needs before everyone else’s. A family that is consumed with doctor’s appointments, rounds of chemotherapy, lab work and surgery only has so much energy to give. It’s common for loved ones to bottle up their emotions and not have time to grieve themselves.

Dealing with Self Medication through Education and Awareness

Self medication exists on many levels, but addiction tends to be more prevalent in people who experience extreme anxiety and depression; are awkward, impatient or angry; or are feeling alienated from mainstream society.

Of course, there is no profile for an addict. In fact, it’s one of life’s great debates: what makes one person more likely to be addicted than another? But, we do know that certain lifestyles, personalities and situations can increase the likelihood for a dependency to form. Chronic illness such as breast cancer can be that changing factor.

If you know someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the best approach is to be informed and educated on self medication. Familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms, and find healthy ways to cope with the diagnosis. Talking with a professional is important from day one because it allows loved ones to come to terms with the diagnosis, grieve and find effective coping mechanisms for handling their emotions, such as journaling, hiking or meditation.

If you fear that a loved one is already in too deep, it’s time to stage an intervention. Some families may wait it out, believing that their addicted loved one will get better with the family’s clean bill of health. Unfortunately, addiction doesn’t just go away; it’s a disease that must be treated immediately for the best chance at a full recovery.

Also, we cannot be dependent on someone else’s recovery to find happiness. If you notice that a loved one is struggling with dependency, help them to find peace and contentment while working through a breast cancer diagnosis in their loved one. Although difficult, there are effective, healthy ways to deal with the effects of illness that do not involve self medicating.

Continue to be involved in breast cancer awareness – not just this month – but always. Every day there are families battling this disease, and the pain and worry that it brings about causes further problems within the family unit. With education, support and professional counseling, the loved ones of people diagnosed with breast cancer will have a better understanding of how to deal with chronic illness.