I cried a lot when newly diagnosed and I learned how to work through my cancer feelings.
As a breast cancer and melanoma survivor, I still remember the shock and pain of the first few weeks and months. My first diagnosis was breast cancer that was caught on a routine mammogram. Looking back to those days, I wish I had been kinder and gentler to myself.
Hearing the words “You have cancer” is a huge shock, so here are my thoughts on the feelings part of cancer to help you—as a fellow cancer patient on this bumpy path. Please let me know if they are helpful and feel free to add to the list.
I got the call from my doctor while I was out running errands. (Isn’t it funny how you learn that assistants almost never call with bad news, but if the doctor calls, there may be a problem?) I had the mammogram, and then I was waiting for my biopsy results. I was filling the car at a gas station when my cell phone rang, but suddenly it felt like I was in a bubble—instantly separated from everyone else there who was getting gas and going about their own business. I made an effort to finish the call calmly. I remember that. The first thing I did was to call my husband. His response was “Oh no.” Oh, no? My normally calm husband was short on words. He had no words to help me in that moment. That upset me even more. He then met me at a nearby parking lot and gave me a hug. What was your experience? Is it forever engraved in your mind?
Journal when ready: Eventually, I wrote in my journal about my cancer, and the journaling helped. Writing things down got the thoughts out of spinning around in my head and down on paper. Before journaling, however, you may just need some good cries because cancer is such a great big overwhelming thing.
Cry: I remember crying a lot. It is OK and healthy to cry. Our culture sometimes underrates the experience of crying. Instead, the societal expectation is that we calm down and put on our brave face right away. Crying is important. Crying is actually helpful and healing. Let it out for as long and hard and often as you need to, especially in the beginning. Taking the time to cry is part of working through this process. Cancer hurt my feelings and my feelings needed time to react, adjust, and recover.
Allow the processing: A cancer diagnosis is a life changer, treatment can be a long process, and you are allowed to feel what you feel about your experience. Cancer is a shock. I was shocked, upset, angry, sad, uncertain, and worried, to name just a few of the emotions. Yes, I was fortunate to have a belief system and the support of loved ones, and I still felt all those feelings. It was helpful to let those emotions out rather than having them come out sideways and possibly hurt those around me. Your feelings are allowed to run their course.
Give yourself time: Allow yourself the time to process your cancer diagnosis feelings even as you may move forward with your medical treatments. I wish I had been kinder to myself. I remember a fellow breast cancer survivor telling me she hung out on her couch for two days and just cried when she received her diagnosis. At a different time, she told me she went through one of her radiation treatments bawling her eyes out the whole time. I thought that was brave! She was able to let her feelings out when she was feeling them. The feelings will change over time and you can work through them.
Be gentle with yourself: Ultimately, be gentle with those feelings. Many times we are kind and gentle to our loved ones when they are upset, but we don’t always give ourselves the same courtesy. Go to your safe place—maybe a specific chair and comforter or another soothing location. When you need to take a break from the cancer thoughts and worries, try to distract yourself—whatever is personally distracting to you. Try to slow down the racing thoughts and worries—write down your questions and concerns to ask the doctor to help get them out of spinning around and around in your head.
You will be able to work through the cancer feelings. They are part of the whole experience and process. Above all, I would strongly suggest NOT going through the experience alone. Reach out to fellow patients, survivors, support groups, and possibly an oncology psychotherapist. Let the doctors and your loved ones know that your feelings have been hurt by cancer too. You will be able to work through this but don’t do it alone.