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Surprise! Cancer Treatment Causes Difficult Emotions

Breast cancer survivor reflects on the mental and emotional effects of cancer treatments.
PUBLISHED July 13, 2016
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at,or
Cancer wreaked havoc on my mental state and emotions. It really wasn’t cancer itself that did it, rather it was the surgical menopause and the hormonal effects of chemotherapy, steroids, radiation, fear of recurrence and fatigue that weighed on my mind and my feelings. Couldn't someone have warned me?

I already felt bad for getting cancer, as though I had somehow stepped into something yucky that everyone else had managed to see and to walk around. What did I do wrong? Why did I get cancer? These are the questions many patients with cancer ask. What did I do? We want to know so we don’t do it again. Many of those answers aren’t available yet, but the doctors try to be supportive and commence with the life-saving treatments.

I mean, seriously, the doctors did tell me that they were basically taking my body captive for months of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Why didn’t they tell me about the impact of these harsh treatments on my thoughts and feelings? I thought I was going crazy and I thought somehow it was my fault. I blamed myself for my tears, angst and sleepless, anxious nights as though I was somehow lacking. Cancer is tough enough without feeling you are wrong in how you handle the whole thing.

Thinking I was somehow lacking because I was upset, anxious, sleepless and exhausted was awful. I felt guilty. I felt like I wasn’t good enough somehow. For goodness sake, tell cancer patients that the treatments are often as emotionally difficult as they are physically exacting. Treatment messes with your hormones. Sheesh. I would have cut myself more slack sooner if I had known. I wouldn’t have fought taking the sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications so much. 

If I knew my feelings were also going to be hijacked during the cancer treatment process, I think I would have been able to laugh through the tears more, or at least give myself permission to take a nap or cry uncle or maybe just plain cry when I needed a break. I was on an emotional roller coaster ride and I think it was a worse ride than it had to be.

Why the silent treatment on this topic? Of course some patients will put on a brave and optimistic face when they go for their doctor appointments. How are you doing today? Many of us smile and say we're fine. Nothing is fine about this! Be warned if you are starting this process.

I want to shout the truth from the rooftops. I don’t want fellow cancer patients to suffer in silence and medically imposed ignorance. In fact, I do think the medical profession is getting better at recognizing this and helping patients through the emotional roller coaster ride induced by the medical treatments, but we aren’t there yet.

How many patients are alerted to the possibility of PTSD from their cancer? The chemo brain, fatigue and emotional damage can sometimes feel worse than the physical damage.

Did cancer hijack your feelings and thoughts too? How did you cope? There is help out there when you understand what really is happening. There are medications, therapy, support groups, healthy eating and exercise, meditation, yoga and more. There is a long and growing list of strategies to help cope with this part of having cancer, so let's caution patients that this may be part of their experience.  
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