Emotional Advice for Cancer Newbies From a Survivor


Seven-year breast cancer survivor offers ideas to cope with cancer emotions.

I remember crying a lot when I was newly diagnosed and feeling overwhelmed by the bad news. I sought resources to help me cope with how cancer felt because cancer was a life changer.

First as a breast cancer survivor and then as a melanoma survivor, there was a lot of shock and emotional pain in those first weeks and months. My breast cancer diagnosis was caught on a routine mammogram. When I look back now several years out, I truly wish I had been nicer to myself in that time window.

When you hear the words, “You have cancer,” it is a huge shock, and with fear of recurrence for a lifetime looming ahead, cancer is a huge life changer. As a fellow cancer survivor on this rocky road, I want to offer what I have learned as I share my story.

When my doctor called with the news, I was out running errands. What? That moment I learned the doctor calls with bad news, and an assistant calls when there isn’t a problem. I was filling my tank at a gas station when my cell phone rang, but I felt instantly separated from everyone else who was getting gas and running their own errands. I remember trying to stay calm and trying not to cry. I remember that vividly.

I immediately called my husband. His first words were “Oh no.” My normally calm husband had no words to help me in that instant. That upset and scared me even more and made it even more real. Cancer is a life changer. In those brief minutes, my life was forever changed. These tools helped:

There is nothing wrong with crying. I remember crying a lot. It is OK and healthy to cry. Let it out. Our culture often implies that strong tough people don’t cry. Instead, the expectation often is to be calm and put on our brave face right away. I am strong and I cry. Crying really is part of working through the shock and fear of diagnosis. Cancer had hurt my body and my future and therefore my feelings. My feelings were allowed time to react, adjust, and recover.

Journal when the initial shock wears off. I wrote in my journal about my cancer, but it took days before I could even start writing. Letting my feelings out on paper helped. It got the horrible frightening thoughts out of spinning around in my head and down on paper.

Allow processing. Cancer is a process, a life changer and a feelings changer. You are allowed to feel whatever you feel. Cancer is a shocker. I was shocked, upset, angry, sad, scared, uncertain and worried to name just a few. Even with a belief system and support from family and friends, I still felt what was happening. It helped to let those emotions out. This was better than having feelings come out sideways and hurt those around me, and honestly, that still happened more than I wish it had happened.

Give it time. Cliché but true. Give yourself the time to process your cancer diagnosis feelings even as you go through your medical treatments. Looking back, I wish I had been kinder to myself. One survivor told me she went through one of her radiation treatments bawling the whole time. She was brave! She let her feelings out exactly when she felt them. Cancer feelings will change over time and you will be able to work through them.

Be gentle, gentle, gentle with yourself. It is funny how we are kind and gentle to our loved ones if they are hurting, but we don’t give ourselves the same kindness. Find your safe place—perhaps a specific chair and blanket? Also, when you need a break from the worries, learn to distract yourself—it can be anything that is personally distracting to you—a novel, a funny television series, shopping, time with friends? To slow down the racing thoughts and worries, write down your questions and concerns for the doctor to stop them from going around and around in your mind. Give your mind a break.

Do not do cancer alone, even if you are a loner. Do reach out to patients around you, fellow survivors, cancer support groups (try more than one if needed to find a fit) and consider a psychotherapist who has had some experience with cancer patients.

You will get through the cancer feelings. Your feelings matter and deserve your kindness and attention. Don’t be shy. Let the doctors and your loved ones know that your feelings have been hurt by cancer too. Cancer is a life changer. With time, you can learn not just to be a survivor but to be a thriver.

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