Validating My Feelings During Cancer


When people try to cheer me up when I feel a certain way towards my cancer, it makes me feel like my feelings aren't valid.

Illustration of a woman with curly brown hair.

Internet algorithms creep up on people. You talk about something, and it shows up in your ad stream. But sometimes, something shows up that speaks to you. In my case, it was a quote.

This post, quietly and succinctly, covered so much that I had tried to say to people who cared about me.

Image of a quote from Kaya Nova.

Here is the quote I saw on the internet that spoke to me.

People tried comforting me but couldn’t seem to understand that I just needed to admit that I was feeling something negative sometimes. It’s common for patients with cancer to feel negative emotions, and it’s common for the people who care for them to try to steer those emotions into a different, more positive direction. A lot of the time, that helps, but sometimes, it really doesn’t help at all. Sometimes, it makes the patient feel like their emotions aren’t valid, as though those emotions don’t really matter.

It’s OK to feel negative emotions; it’s even OK, within limits, to wallow in them. And it’s not necessary to be jollied out of those emotions every time they happen. The only way to get through such emotions, to fully deal with them and get past them, is to allow yourself to feel them.

When I was first diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, I was in shock. I didn’t really have an emotional response to being diagnosed with cancer; my doctor thought I might have a blood clot in a lung, so blood cancer was a complete shock.

In trying to deal with my suddenly discovered illness, my emotions — especially my darker emotions — shut down. I couldn’t function with sadness and grief, especially in the isolation caused by being diagnosed during a pandemic. I was home alone with just my dog. All my friends were working, while I was on medical leave because my oncologist was concerned about the unknowns in catching COVID-19 while undergoing a cancer treatment known and designed to reduce immune function.

It was months, nearly the end of my six-month course of treatment, before I truly began to allow myself to feel those negative emotions. It was before the depression I felt at my situation lifted enough for me to truly acknowledge what I felt. But my friends didn’t understand.

I was nearly through treatment, I was responding well and my emotions tanked, because I finally had the energy, emotional and physical, to feel those emotions, and have a chance at dealing with them.

It’s a common human response to try to cheer people up when something bad happens. It’s certainly not limited to cancer: it’s a response to any negative event, illness, accident or any type of loss. But there’s a special type of cheering that goes on with cancer, inspired by the language that surrounds cancer.

It’s all warlike: cancer patients have to fight (literally, far too often, to the death); cancer patients are often referred to as warriors, and exhorted to never give up the battle. The expectations that type of wording brings with it, along with attempts to cheer patients up, to try to get them to have a positive outlook, often deepen those negative emotions that no one wants to hear about, because they don’t align with the warrior stereotype that surrounds cancer treatment.

Let your loved ones feel what they feel. Accept it. Don’t try to wheedle them into a happier mood. If you let them feel what they feel, to work through it, to know that whatever they feel is acceptable, that will go a long way toward helping them feel heard.

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