As you go through cancer treatment, you’ll be faced with many emotions—some of which you may not be used to dealing with. These emotions are a normal part of living with cancer and are likely to change or become more intense at different points in your cancer journey.
We can refer you to support groups, social workers, or counselors for additional resources around emotional and mental health support during the cancer care continuum. This can happen at various stages in your journey and is different for everyone.
Some common emotions you or your family/friends may experience can include:
- Fear and worry
- Stress and anxiety
- Sadness or depression
- Gratitude and hope
In the beginning, you may have trouble believing or accepting that you have cancer. This is called denial.
Denial can be helpful in that it gives you time to come to terms with your diagnosis, but if it lasts too long, it can keep you from getting the treatment you need. Thankfully, most people with cancer as well as their loved ones work through this stage and are ready to move forward once cancer treatment is about to begin.
Being angry about having cancer is a common reaction that can range from mild irritation to fury. These feelings of anger may be directed at health care providers, friends, family members, or even a religious figure.
Often, anger stems from other feelings that are hard to show, such as fear, panic, frustration, anxiety, and helplessness. If you have feelings of anger, it is very important to find an outlet, such as talking to someone, in order to relieve the tension you are feeling.
Fear and Worry
Being diagnosed with cancer can be scary. You may be afraid or worried about:
- Discomfort or pain from cancer and/or cancer treatment
- The wellbeing of your family
- Physical changes caused by certain treatments
To cope with these fears and worries, it often helps to be informed. Learning facts about your cancer can help ease some of these emotions and make you feel more in control of your situation.
Stress and Anxiety
It’s normal to stress over the changes you’re going through both during and after cancer treatment. Some people also find that they have feelings of anxiety, which means they have excess worry, can’t relax, and feel tense. You may experience symptoms, such as:
- A racing heartbeat
- Headaches or muscle pain
- Changes in appetite (eating more or less than usual)
- Nausea or diarrhea
- Shakiness, weakness, or dizziness
- Changes in sleeping habits (sleeping too much or too little)
- Tightness in throat or chest
- Difficulty concentrating
Be sure to talk with your cancer care team if you have any of these feelings. While these symptoms are common signs of stress, you’ll want your doctor to verify that they aren’t being caused by medicines or treatment.
If you are worried about your stress level, you might consider talking with a counselor or taking a class that teaches ways to manage it. Focus on finding ways to control your stress so it doesn’t control you.
Sadness and Depression
Some people with cancer may experience sadness before, during, or after cancer treatment. This is a normal response to any serious illness and may take time to work through.
For some people, these feelings go away or lessen over time. Others, however, may slip into depression, a medical condition that can get in the way of daily life. Depression can make it harder to cope with treatment and make choices about your care. Because of this, it is very important to identify the signs and get help.
Depression can present itself through emotional signs and physical changes. If you experience any of the following signs for more than two weeks, talk to your oncologist about treatment.
Emotional signs of depression may include:
- Sadness that doesn’t go away
- Emotional numbness
- Helplessness or hopelessness (life has no meaning)
- Moodiness and/or feelings of irritability
- Feelings of guilt or unworthiness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increase in stress and worry
- Crying for long periods of time or many times each day
- Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
- Difficulty enjoying everyday things, including spending time with family and friends
- Thinking about hurting or killing yourself
Physical changes that could be related to depression may include:
- Unintended weight gain or loss not due to illness or treatment
- Surgical side effects that occur as a result of cancer treatments whether they be breast/GYN, ostomy related, post treatment scarring, or other external tubes/drains that cause physical manifestation of depression or reminders of cancer and cancer treatment
- Sleep problems (insomnia, nightmares, excessive sleeping)
- Racing heart, dry mouth, increased perspiration, upset stomach, diarrhea
- Chronic fatigue
- Changes in energy level
- Headaches and/or other aches and pains
If your doctor thinks you suffer from depression, medication may be prescribed to help treat depression or anxiety. This is often used on adjunct with other nonprescription treatment options. Depression can be treated, so don’t feel as though you must control these feelings on your own.
Many people experience feelings of guilt throughout their cancer journey. Some may feel guilty because their family helps with their care. Others may feel guilty because they envy the good health of people they know. Some may even feel guilty about lifestyle choices that may have increased the risk for cancer.
These feelings are very common but talking about them could make you feel better. Let your doctor know if you would like to talk with a counselor or go to a support group.
Gratitude and Hope
Some people see their cancer as a wake-up call about the important things in life. They may decide to try new things, visit new places, spend more time with loved ones, and even mend broken relationships.
Some people also feel a sense of hope. This is often because they realize that cancer survival rates are better now than they have ever been before.
It may be hard at first, but you can find joy in your life. You may even discover that cultivating feelings of gratitude and hope gives you the ability to better cope with cancer.
Some ways you can practice gratitude and build your sense of hope may include:
- Planning your days around regularly scheduled activities
- Actively looking for reasons to be grateful and hopeful
- Connecting with nature
- Reflecting on your religious or spiritual beliefs
- Getting involved in an activity or taking on a hobby
- Spending time with your loved ones
Whatever you choose, embrace the things that bring you joy when you can.
Managing Your Emotions
There are steps you can take that may help you feel better. You may not think anything will help, but you won’t know until you try.
To cope with your emotions, you may want to:
- Express your feelings. Talking about your feelings can help you sort through them and let them go.
- Look for the positive. Try to stay hopeful instead of thinking the worst.
- Stop blaming yourself. Cancer can happen to anyone, so don’t think that it’s your fault.
- Find ways to relax. Consider techniques such as meditation or relaxation exercises to help relieve stress and worry.
- Stay active. Exercise can be very beneficial for cancer patients.
- Seek out things you enjoy. Hobbies or other creative outlets can help you focus on things other than cancer.
- Control what you can. Setting a schedule for your day, getting involved in your health care, and making positive lifestyle changes are a few ways you can regain a sense of control.
Whatever you decide, be sure to do what’s right for you. For more suggestions, you may want to reach out to your oncologist or nurse.
If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm you need to reach out immediately to the National Suicide Lifeline at 988 or your care team for immediate help.