The emotional impact of cancer
Sponsored by Discovery Health
Cancer is a life-changing event, not only for you, but for all those close to you.
It’s important to take care of your emotional and mental health as well as your physical wellbeing. When you are first diagnosed with cancer you feel a whirlwind of emotions.
While your experiences and emotions are unique to you, there is often a common thread in the type of emotions people go through. There is value in experiencing and passing through each one of these emotions, as it shows you are progressing and healing. But, don’t rush yourself, feel them and deal with them as and when they come, some might take longer than others to pass.
Research shows that those who look for support, by themselves or within groups, cope better. A person who takes action will need a sense of control. Good food, exercise and managing stress are some of the most important gifts you can give yourself at this time. Below are some of the emotions you might experience:
Shock and disbelief
Shock and disbelief are often the first emotions people with cancer feel. ‘Cancer happens to other people, not me!’ Many people see it as a fatal disease, though the illness can be managed and treated. Disbelief about what is happening is understandable and serves a useful purpose; it provides a calming, numbing effect that softens the news of the diagnosis. It acts like a local anaesthetic when you need it most – giving you time to come to terms with the news – it gives you a chance to start adjusting to a major change in your life.
Denial is when you can’t believe that you have cancer. It’s often expressed as ‘No – it can’t be true’. Denial acts as a buffer, allowing you time to accept your diagnosis. It can cause withdrawal, isolation and mood swings. Sometimes denial goes on for a long time, but if it goes on for too long, you delay facing up to the reality. And you might postpone treatment, which could affect your future health.
It’s okay to be dependent on your medical team up to a point, but always keep in mind that you are in control of your treatment options and decisions. Don’t give control over your life and your situation to someone else. Stand up for your needs. If you feel that you are not coping with these changes, help is at hand, you just have to reach out for it.
Guilt is an important emotion to deal with. Some people blame themselves for their illness – or blame things they don’t have any control over. Sometimes people feel that they have failed somehow. ‘What did I do wrong to get sick?’ Some may even think they caused their own cancer. Specific people even believe that they are being punished for things they have said or done – this isn’t true! Cancer can affect anyone, and often the reasons can’t be explained. Having difficulty coping with cancer, the treatment, or side effects is another reason some people feel guilty. Be careful not to make unreasonable demands on yourself. You might feel you’re not recovering fast enough, or that you’re letting family or your medical team down. Guilt can be a destructive emotion; let go of the feelings that place burdens on you. Think about why you feel guilty, and realise there’s nothing you can do about some things. Discuss your feelings with your loved ones or a therapist.
Hearing you have cancer may result in you saying things like ‘How dare this happen? I won’t allow it! It isn’t fair! Why now? I don’t deserve it’. This anger is a reaction to the unfairness of what has happened to you, the interruption in your life, and the unjust loss of your lifestyle. Anger is often not directed at anyone specific, but sometimes you might feel angry with the cancer, your body, at your god for letting this happen, at the world, at the doctors who told you that you have cancer, at friends who are still healthy or even at loved ones. Sometimes there is no reason for your anger and no one to direct it at. Anger can mask other feelings, like fear, panic and helplessness. It is easier than admitting that you are having a hard time and that you can’t cope. Expressing your anger can actually be healthy because it enables you to act. The fear of losing your independence and having to rely on others is quite normal. It is as if the cancer is in control of your body; and the doctor is in control of your treatment. You feel that you are losing control of your life. Loss of financial independence is another common fear.
Sadness and depression
You might also feel sadness and depression at times. There may be many reasons for feeling low. Shortterm sadness is perfectly normal, but get professional help if you don’t feel better after a few weeks. A diagnosis of cancer destroys our illusion that we might live forever and forces us to come to terms with the reality that we will die someday. This realisation is harsh and very difficult to come to terms with, but the challenge is to learn to live fully and joyfully until you die, not die while you are living.
Working through each of these emotions will not only help you accept your situation, but help you begin to feel at peace. You will feel more hopeful, and less despairing, allowing you to focus on your life’s goals and to be realistic about progress and plans. It also allows you to focus all your energy on getting the disease and getting well again.
We wish you strength and power on your journey. We wish to support you too, at every step, in rough seas and calm.