For most patients, a cancer diagnosis is an attack on the mind as well as the body. Effectively managing the progression of emotions triggered by cancer is important to the healing process. Patients often experience several of the commonly recognized stages of grief, including denial, anger, and depression. This is normal, and may last a few days, weeks, or months.
Because every patient’s cancer journey is different, it’s important to recognize and address emotional needs, and work through them using available resources. These could include professional counseling, care team visits, or leaning on friends and family for support during this challenging time. All of these can help patients confront the expected emotional roller coaster that accompanies cancer.
According to grief expert David Kessler, denial helps people pace feelings of grief. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as they can handle. As denial fades, patients can begin to confront the feelings that were too painful to deal with initially.
Patients sometimes feel angry in response to the pain and emotional impact of cancer treatment. However, it’s important to express and confront these feelings to avoid letting anger get the best of you. Try talking with friends, family, and your care team. Journaling can also provide a more private form of emotional expression.
Many factors can increase your likelihood of becoming depressed, including physical conditions like pain or an advanced stage of cancer, a personal or family history of depression, lack of family support, or a side effect of cancer medication. The most common symptoms of depression in cancer patients are guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, loss of pleasure, and for some, thoughts of suicide. If you have any of these symptoms for at least two weeks, you should speak with your oncologist about treatment options.
Following are some additional ways to cope with the emotional impact of cancer, as well as some things to avoid.
- Rely on ways of coping that have helped you in the past.
- Deal with cancer “one day at a time.”
- Participate in support groups.
- Leverage your care team’s expertise to get your questions answered.
- Share your news with friends, family, and coworkers when you feel ready. Celebrate good news, whether it’s a small victory or a big win.
- Prioritize tasks and eliminate things that are not essential.
- Relax with yoga or meditation.
- Exercise moderately several times a week to help with feelings of tiredness or anxiety.
- Fixate on the negative. A report by the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute estimates there are more than 15.5 million cancer survivors alive in the U.S. today, and that number will grow to more than 20 million by 2026.
- Feel guilty if you’re having a hard time staying positive.
- Suffer in silence.
- Be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help.
- Keep your emotions or symptoms a secret from the person closest to you.
While the fight against cancer is not easy, our patients do not fight alone. In addition to committed, caring medical teams, many patients tell us that their experience with cancer revealed just how much – and how many – people love and support them. Putting on a brave face is a form of coping. But it’s important for patients to allow themselves to accept needed help – whether from family, friends, coworkers, patients, or cancer survivors.
The good news is that many support programs and resources are available. Cancer journeys are not one-size-fits all. Each patient must walk the path that suits him or her best.
Nurul Wahid, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.
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