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Do it for Danielle: How treating mental health improves breast cancer diagnoses

Studies show it not only lessens chances of re-diagnosis, but death as well.

CLEVELAND — "I got married when I was 29 with the intention of having a family."

Five years ago, Emily Richmond was ready to move into a new phase of life. But at her young age, she never knew that phase would be dealing with breast cancer.

"And at age 30 I found a lump and reported it to my doctor," she remembers. "And a couple days later I got a call that yes, I did have a little, quote little breast cancer in my left breast. So that was earth-shattering, as a working hopefully parent it was devastating." 

A nurse herself- she still felt unsure where to turn, or where she'd gone wrong.

"I have no cancer in my family, of any kind, no breast cancer nonetheless. My mother taught me at an early age that self exams is apart of your health and upkeep as a woman."

Within a week of her diagnosis-,she found Cleveland Clinic Health Psychologist Doctor Kathy Ashton.

"I think its important for patients to check in on their mental health at different points along the way in their treatment," explains Dr. Ashton. "So when they're first diagnosed, when they first go through surgery or chemotherapy, those can be trigger points, where they notice an emotional reaction."

Doctor Ashton works at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center's Psychosocial Oncology Program, where they offer counseling, psychiatric evaluation, and treatment for breast cancer patients specifically.

And the research into this type of counseling is eye-opening. 

In 1994, Ohio State University's Doctor Barbara Andersen studied 227 women diagnosed with stage two or three breast cancer over 15 years. Called an "intervention"- the woman went through targeted therapy and improved health practices like diet and exercise.

Those who stuck with those changes were re-visited, and patients who hadn't been re-diagnosed had a 45% less risk of re-occurrence. While those who were diagnosed again- had a 59% less risk of dying from breast cancer. And the method of re-visiting these patients after surgery is crucial.

"So a lot of breast cancer patients will still be taking medication for 10-15 years of your life that can feel like they're in menopause. If you're a young woman that can be pretty disturbing," Dr. Ashton says. "There's lots of symptoms that can continue. You can have neuropathy, so pain issues that can continue after treatment. You can have fatigue."

Paired that with mental stress- and some patients even stop chemotherapy. But Emily says- treating her mental health is what saved her physically.

"I was telling my girlfriend the other day, she also got breast cancer very young, she's two years out, we're living on borrowed time. We're not supposed to be here. Lets make the best of it. Lets really make sure we make a difference."

We're happy to say Emily did give birth to a baby boy in 2019. And she tells us she still sees Dr. Ashton, and just checks-in with herself nowadays to decide how often she needs to see her.

To learn more about Dr. Ashton or request an appointment, click here.

To learn more about the Clinic's psychosocial oncology program, click here.

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