Cancer is stressful. You may be feeling anxiety, grief, sadness, anger, loneliness and more all at once. Know that these feelings are all normal and okay.
It’s important to check in with yourself about your emotions. Don’t keep everything bottled up inside. Talk with your loved ones about how you’re feeling. This way you can be aware of the difference between simply feeling sad and developing a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety.
If you have any questions about this, reach out to your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional. If you have been diagnosed with a mental health problem before your cancer diagnosis, it’s important to continue with your treatment plan as usual.
Although it may seem obvious, the first step towards learning how to cope with new emotions is to understand how you’re feeling and why. Naming your feelings can be a helpful first step.
For many newly diagnosed patients and carepartners, a cancer diagnosis may have been the last thing you were expecting to receive. You may not understand all the information you’re given about your diagnosis, and you may find it hard to believe that it is actually happening to you. First of all, know that these feelings are normal. It’s okay to cry, scream, throw pillows, or whatever you need to do to let your emotions out. Reach out to your family and friends, if you’d like. If you’re not ready to talk yet, that’s also okay.
As the days pass and you get used to your new routine, your feelings of shock will lessen.
It’s okay to be scared. You might be worried about whether not treatments will work, what side effects you might experience. how your diagnosis will affect your finances, your career, and your quality of life. You might be concerned about how these changes will affect your relationships with your family and friends.
Patients from the COLONTOWN Community say feelings are likely to ebb and flow throughout your treatment journey, depending on what is happening at a particular point in time. A successful surgery or good scan results may leave you feeling overjoyed and relieved. Progression, failed treatments, or reoccurrences will likely cause new fears and anxieties to surface. This might make you feel like you’re going through emotional whiplash. Preparing for these feelings will help you ride out the waves as they come.
Reach out to your support system, and be clear about how they can help you. Do you want someone to listen to you vent without trying to fix things? Do you want someone to take tasks off your plate, like cooking dinner? Do you want someone to take on the job of researching treatment options for you? Your loved ones want to help you, and it’s okay to lean on them.
A cancer diagnosis as a lot to take in all at once. You’ll be exposed to a whole new vocabulary about biomarkers, scans, side effects, and treatment options. Understand that it will take time to wrap your head around all this new information, and it’s normal to be confused at first.
That’s one of the reasons we created CRC101 — to help explain everything you need to know in plain language. Remember you can refer back to it whenever you need it, you don’t need to understand everything all at once. The COLONTOWN Community can be a great resource to ask questions and get support. Join here.
You might feel overwhelmed at different points during your journey for different reasons. Once the initial shock wears off, and you begin to understand your disease, you may feel overwhelmed trying to balance medical appointments, treatment schedules, side effects, work and family life. In fact, just keeping track of your prescriptions can practically be a full-time job!
Our community member suggest that if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, try to stop and take a deep breath. Think about what really needs to be done now, and what can be done another day. I know we’ve said this before, but don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones for help when you need it.
Living with uncertainty is a big part of a cancer patient’s life, particularly for stage IV patients. If you’re a planner, this may be difficult to handle at first. Treatment plans can change quickly based on scan results, extreme side effects, or low blood counts. Also, there’s no guarantees that a treatment will work the way you want it to.
While uncertainty can be difficult to manage, there are some things you can do to help. Try to build certainty into your life in other ways. Make fun plans, like meeting a friend for a coffee, or going out to dinner with your spouse. Finding a daily routine can help you feel at ease with other changes in your life.
Many people experience grief following a cancer diagnosis. You may feel like you lost the life you had before you were diagnosed. It’s not easy to see pictures of friends having fun on social media while you are in the chemo chair.
It might not feel nice to experience these emotions, but it’s important to give yourself the time and space to process them. Our COLONTOWN Community members report that people often tell cancer patients to “stay positive!” — but cancer is a hard thing to stay positive about, and suppressing your emotions will not help you in the long run. It’s okay to reminisce and grieve the loss of your pre-cancer life. These feelings may never go away completely, but you should also embrace and celebrate your new life, as different as it may seem.
Your life is not over. In the COLONTOWN Community, we have stage IV patients living out their lives and thriving in between treatments. If you need some encouragement and hope, come join us.
It makes sense to feel angry about a cancer diagnosis. Many patients wonder, “why me?” and unfortunately, none of us have an answer to that question. We don’t usually think of anger as a positive emotion, so feeling angry may come along with feeling guilt and shame. But there’s no reason to feel guilty about being angry.
Some COLONTOWN members suggest axe throwing, paintball, or find a “smash room” in your area — a place where you can take a hammer to old and broken furniture and devices. Anything that allows you to blow off your energy can be helpful. Chat with your doctor if you think these activities might be too much for you.
It’s important to process your anger in a healthy way, so you don’t end up directing your frustration toward your loved ones.
Sometimes anger can give way to feelings of guilt and blame. You may feel guilty about upsetting your loved ones, or feel like you’re a burden to them. If you can no longer take care of your family in the way you did before, you might feel like you’re letting them down. You might even blame yourself or your lifestyle choices for the fact you got cancer in the first place.
While these feelings are understandable, we’re here to remind you that no one is to blame for you getting cancer. The great majority of cancers are tied to spontaneous mutations. In addition, feeling guilty about these things won’t change your circumstances, it will just make you feel bad. When you feel guilty, acknowledge the feeling, but work on letting these feelings go.
When you get diagnosed, your life completely changes. But it might feel like life goes on for your friends and family. Loneliness is a common emotion in younger patients, who may not know anyone else their age dealing with a similar diagnosis.
You are not alone. Talk to your oncologist about support groups at your cancer center. There are many organizations (like COLONTOWN!) out there to help you get the support you need.
Many patients have made wonderful friends through this experience too, as tough as it is.
Cancer treatments come with changes to your body, appearance, and emotional well-being. Chemo can cause hair thinning, targeted therapies can cause skin rashes, radiation can lead to changes in sexual health and fertility, and surgery may leave scars.
You may feel uncomfortable in your new body, and worry about how you are perceived by others. You might be concerned about how cancer will change your sex life and relationship with your partner. These concerns are normal, and it can help to talk them through with your partner, loved ones, or a mental health professional. Those who love you will be there no matter what you look like.
Here are some tips from our community. First of all, it’s important to be grateful for your body. You may feel resentment towards it for failing you in some ways, but it also has nourished you and housed you for your whole life up until this point. Your body exists to sustain you, not simply to look good.
That said, it is not superficial to feel upset over the changes your body is going through. Your identity is in part tied to your physical appearance, and it makes sense that you want your appearance to reflect how you imagine yourself.
Some patients want to wear wigs, others don’t. Both are okay decisions. If you are a woman and want to experience some pampering, the organization Hello Gorgeous provides support and resources to women with cancer. They offer free or inexpensive virtual makeovers, as well as accessible makeovers at affiliate salons.
While all of these feelings can be normal for many people dealing with cancer, make sure to recognize when you may be experiencing a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety. If so, you may require outside help.
If you are experiencing the following symptoms for more than a week or two, contact your doctor to discuss how you’re feeling. They may offer you a referral to mental health services:
Knowing that these feelings are all a normal part of the cancer journey does not necessarily make them easier to manage. So here are some helpful tips from the COLONTOWN Community.
If you suspect that you’re experiencing signs of depression or anxiety — or simply feel you need some professional help processing your emotions, it’s a good idea to seek out a psychologist or therapist. Working with a mental health professional can help you learn to manage and express all these emotions. You should be able to ask for a referral from your family doctor or the social worker at your cancer center. Some of these services are offered free to cancer patients, but it’s always a good idea to check what your insurance will cover to avoid surprises later on.
Don’t be afraid to let people know what is going on, and to ask them for help. The people who care about you want to see you doing as well as possible, they don’t want you to suffer in silence or look strong for them. Think about what you need. Do you need a listening ear? Someone to look after the kids while you’re getting chemo? Someone to pick up groceries or clean the house? Maybe a food delivery gift card? Make a list and delegate, or ask your partner or another loved one to do the delegating for you. Taking some of the day-to-day tasks off your plate can help relieve pressure and reduce stress levels. It might even give you some more time to process how you’re feeling.
If you can’t talk to loved ones about how you’re feeling, connect with other people going through similar experiences by joining COLONTOWN Community.
Suppressing your feelings doesn’t make them go away. The longer they stay inside, the more they grow until it can feel insurmountable to share with someone else. If you’re having trouble expressing your feelings, try taking it slow. Some COLONTOWN members suggest starting off with lighter emotions, if that feels right for you. Point out when you feel happy, or when you found something funny. When you’re comfortable sharing these emotions, move on to ones you find more difficult to talk about.
Communication about goals is an important part of sharing your feelings, and it might explain why you aren’t feeling heard from those in your life. Some people hear you’re feeling sad, and immediately jump to fix the problem. That sometimes leaves you feeling pressured to immediately feel better. Tell your loved ones what you want from them, if it’s just a listening ear while you vent — or if you do want suggestions or help managing your problems, let them know about that too.
Know that your loved ones are there for you, but they likely don’t have much experience helping people process the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis. Luckily, there are professionals there to help you. You can chat with the social worker at your cancer center to start with, and if you’d like, they can refer you to a mental health professional like a psychiatrist or therapist.
After a cancer diagnosis, many patients are bombarded with people encouraging you to “look on the bright side” or “keep a positive attitude.” While this may be helpful for some people, it can be absolutely infuriating for others. In fact, there’s even a word for it — “toxic positivity.”
Your feelings are normal and okay — the good, the bad, and the ugly. The truth is, cancer is an emotional rollercoaster for many patients, and you will feel many different things throughout your cancer journey. Don’t put pressure on yourself to feel a particular way — or act a particular way — if you really aren’t feeling it.
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to want answers. While it may be convenient to blame yourself for eating too much bacon or drinking too many sodas, we don’t know much about why cancer develops. Many people exercise, eat healthy, and do everything “right” and still get cancer. Others drink, smoke, and eat poorly yet live a long, disease-free life.
So remember that blaming yourself does nothing to change your current circumstances. It just makes you feel bad. Do your best to let go of the guilt, and focus on what you need to do to take care of yourself (both emotionally and physically).
Exercise, mindfulness, meditation and guided imagery can be powerful tools to help calm your mind and ease anxiety. If you are religious, prayer is another technique you may find helpful. Try free meditation apps or calming Spotify playlists to get started.
Some employers and insurance companies offer subscriptions to meditation apps for free. If you’re interested, chat with your employer or insurance company.
Take a moment to sit down and make a list of things that make you happy. It could be as simple as walking through the neighborhood park, listening to your favorite album, taking a long bath or eating your favorite dinner. Try to carve out space in your day for at least one of these activities. Focusing on the little things you enjoy throughout the day — and being really present when you do them — can help you feel more connected to your life before you were diagnosed. If you are experiencing appetite loss, pain, or reduced mobility, there are ways to adapt your favorite activities. You might not be able to go for a walk with the dog, but you can sit in your backyard together and watch the sunset. You might not be able to eat the big spinach salad you loved before your ostomy surgery, but you can turn the same flavors into a blended spinach and tomato soup.
You might be thinking “I have cancer. What do I have to be grateful for?” While toxic positivity isn’t helpful, having a daily gratitude practice has many emotional benefits.
Try sitting down first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, and making a list of 5 things you’re grateful for. They can be as big or as small as you’d like. Focusing on the positive things you’ve experienced that day can help you become more aware of the positive experiences and emotions in your life. It won’t make the negative feelings go away, but it can help put them into perspective.
Good sleep is crucial for your body’s recovery process. Unfortunately, things like steroids, pain, fear, anxiety, and other emotions can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. If you’re struggling with sleeping, try scheduling an alarm in the evening too, letting you know it’s time to go to bed. If you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, it can help your body get in a good rhythm. Try not to eat too big a meal close to bedtime, and avoid using screens just before bed. Some meditation and relaxation apps can be helpful to calm your mind before drifting off.
If you’ve tried all these tips, and your sleep has not improved in a few weeks, talk to your family doctor or oncologist about it. They may be able to recommend medications or other strategies to help get your sleep back on track.
Although a healthy diet and exercise won’t cure your cancer, staying in good health will make you feel better. The better you feel physically, the more likely you are to feel well emotionally.
When you have cancer, it’s easy to feel as though things are out of your control. Although you always have some element of choice in your treatment decisions, once that decision has been made, you sit back and hope the treatment works.
Luckily, there are many ways you can feel empowered. First of all, educate yourself about your disease. Request copies of all your medical records, and make sure you understand them. If you don’t, ask your oncologist to explain. Read your pathology reports and familiarize yourself with your biomarkers. We’ve even created a worksheet for you to fill out to make sure you have all your info in one place! Get to know your treatment options so that you can have an informed discussion with your oncologist. If you’re reading this guide, you’re off to a great start. And if you still have questions, come join us in the COLONTOWN Community — we are here to help you.
The people and your life can sympathize with you, but they likely don’t understand what it’s truly like to have cancer. Connecting with others in a similar situation can be very helpful. Support groups can give you a chance to express your feelings in a safe space. They can also be useful for sharing info on testing, treatment options, side effects, clinical trials and more.
If you’re interested in joining a local support group, the social worker at your cancer center should be able to direct you to the right place.
If you’re not a COLONTOWN Community member already, come join us! COLONTOWN has thousands of knowledgeable members in hundreds of groups, so you can find support for anything you need.
Talking to friends and family about your diagnosis can be difficult. When you’re newly diagnosed, you may feel overwhelmed and have no idea how to approach the subject with the people in your life. Some people want to run out and tell everyone all at once, and others might want to keep it private for the time being. All of these reactions are completely normal. If you don’t feel like sharing the news yourself, you can delegate. Ask your partner or loved one to share the information with friends and family. You can use a website like CaringBridge, Facebook, or a text group chat to share information about your health.
Once you do start telling people, you’ll likely get a wide range of reactions. Some people will have no idea how to respond. Others will be wildly supportive, and you will probably receive many, many offers to help. It’s a good idea to be prepared to tell people what you need and how you want them to communicate with you about your cancer. Realize that this may change from one day to the next. If you want them to stop asking about how you’re doing, tell them. If you want them to stop giving unhelpful unsolicited advice, tell them. You can also delegate the job to another loved one.
As you continue along your cancer journey, talking about things can become easier, but many patients sometimes find it difficult to relate to friends and family. Small talk and the casual question “How are you doing?” can be very loaded and exhausting. People may feel frustrated that nobody understands what they’re going through. While it’s important that you don’t isolate yourself, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to attend social events if you don’t feel up to it.
If you find yourself stuck in a small talk conversation about your cancer, it can be helpful to prepare a short response in advance. Here are some ideas:
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Last updated: April 12, 2023