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Published on July 12, 2017

cancer patient thinking

A cancer diagnosis conjures many feelings

Dealing with the different side effects and life changes of cancer treatment can be hard on you emotionally as well as physically. Just as cancer affects your physical health, it can bring up a wide range of feelings you’re not used to dealing with. It can also make many feelings seem more intense. They may change daily, hourly or even by the minute. This is true whether you’re currently in treatment, done with treatment or a friend or family member of someone receiving treatment. These feelings are all normal.

Often the values you grew up with affect how you think about and deal with cancer. For example, some people:

  • Feel they have to be strong and protect their friends and families.
  • Seek support and turn to loved ones or other cancer survivors.
  • Ask for help from counselors or other professionals.
  • Turn to their faith to help them cope.

Whatever you decide, it's important to do what's right for you and not to compare yourself with others. Your friends and family members may share some of the same feelings. If you feel comfortable, share this information with them.

You also may choose to participate in our Cancer Center Support Group at Gundersen Health System, a safe and confidential community of people who may be experiencing similar emotions.

Overwhelmed

When you first learn that you have cancer, you may feel as if your life is out of control. This could be because:

  • You wonder if you're going to live.
  • Your normal routine is disrupted by doctor visits and treatments.
  • People use medical terms that you don't understand.
  • You feel like you can't do the things you enjoy.
  • You feel helpless and lonely.

Even if you feel out of control, there are ways you can take charge. Try to learn as much as you can about your cancer. Ask your doctor questions and don't be afraid to say when you don't understand. Also, many people feel better if they stay busy. You can take part in activities such as music, crafts, reading or learning something new.

Denial

When you first received your diagnosis, you may have had trouble believing or accepting the fact that you have cancer. This is called denial. It can be helpful because it can give you time to adjust to your diagnosis. It can also give you time to feel hopeful and better about the future.

Sometimes, denial is a serious problem. If it lasts too long, it can keep you from getting the treatment you need.

The good news is that most people work through denial. Usually by the time treatment begins, most people accept the fact that they have cancer and move forward. This is true for those with cancer as well as the people they love and care about.

Anger

People with cancer often feel angry. It's normal to ask "Why me?" and be angry at the cancer. You may also feel anger or resentment toward your healthcare providers, your healthy friends and your loved ones. And if you're religious, you may even feel angry with God.

Anger often comes from feelings that are hard to show, such as fear, panic, frustration, anxiety or helplessness. If you feel angry, you don't have to pretend that everything is okay. Anger can be helpful in that it may motivate you to take action. Talk with your family and friends about your anger. Or, ask your doctor to refer you to a counselor.

Fear and worry

It's scary to hear that you have cancer. You may be afraid or worried about:

  • Being in pain, either from the cancer or the treatment.
  • Feeling sick or looking different as a result of your treatment.
  • Taking care of your family.
  • Paying your bills.
  • Keeping your job.
  • Dying.

Some fears about cancer are based on stories, rumors or wrong information. To cope with fears and worries, it often helps to be informed. Most people feel better when they learn the facts. They feel less afraid and know what to expect.

Learn about your cancer and understand what you can do to be an active partner in your care. Some studies even suggest that people who are well-informed about their illness and treatment are more likely to follow their treatment plans and recover from cancer more quickly than those who are not.

Be sure to ask your healthcare providers any questions you may have about your cancer or treatment. Our libraries at Gundersen also can provide you with detailed information, which patient education librarians can help you locate. At each library location, you can access books, CDs, DVDs, health magazines and more.

Hope

Once people accept that they have cancer, they often feel a sense of hope. There are many reasons to feel hopeful. Millions of people who have had cancer are alive today. Your chances of living with cancer—and living beyond it—are better now than they have ever been before. And people with cancer can lead active lives, even during treatment.

Some doctors think that hope may help your body deal with cancer. So, scientists are studying whether a hopeful outlook and positive attitude helps people feel better. Here are some ways you can build your sense of hope:

  • Plan your days as you've always done.
  • Don't limit the things you like to do just because you have cancer.
  • Look for reasons to have hope. If it helps, write them down or talk to others about them.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Reflect on your religious or spiritual beliefs.
  • Listen to stories about people with cancer who are leading active lives. You also may find a sense of hope by reading about people who have overcome cancer, such as Gundersen medical assistant Connie Hoscheit or medical oncologist Leah Dietrich.

Stress and anxiety

Both during and after treatment, it's normal to have stress over all the life changes you are going through. Anxiety means you have extra worry, can't relax and feel tense. You may notice that:

  • Your heart beats faster.
  • You have headaches or muscle pains.
  • You don't feel like eating. Or you eat more.
  • You feel sick to your stomach or have diarrhea.
  • You feel shaky, weak or dizzy.
  • You have a tight feeling in your throat and chest.
  • You sleep too much or too little.
  • You find it hard to concentrate.

If you have any of these feelings, talk to your doctor. Though they are common signs of stress, you will want to make sure they aren't due to medicines or treatment.

If you're worried about your stress, ask your doctor to suggest a counselor for you to talk to. The key is to find ways to control your stress and not to let it control you.

Sadness and depression

Many people with cancer feel sad. They feel a sense of loss of their health, and the life they had before they learned they had the disease. Even when you’re done with treatment, you may still feel sad. This is a normal response to any serious illness. It may take time to work through and accept all the changes that are taking place.

When you're sad, you may have very little energy, feel tired or not want to eat. For some, these feelings go away or lessen over time. But for others, these emotions can become stronger. This may be a medical condition called depression. For some, cancer treatment may have added to this problem by changing the way the brain works.

Depression can be treated. Below are common signs of depression. If you have any of the following signs for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor about treatment. Be aware that some of these symptoms could be due to physical problems, so it's important to talk about them with your doctor.

Emotional signs:

  • Feelings of sadness that don't go away
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling nervous or shaky
  • Having a sense of guilt or feeling unworthy
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless, as if life has no meaning
  • Feeling short-tempered, moody
  • Having a hard time concentrating, feeling scatterbrained
  • Crying for long periods of time or many times each day
  • Focusing on worries and problems
  • No interest in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
  • Finding it hard to enjoy everyday things, such as food or being with family and friends
  • Thinking about hurting yourself
  • Thoughts about killing yourself

Body changes:

  • Unintended weight gain or loss not due to illness or treatment
  • Sleep problems, such as not being able to sleep, having nightmares or sleeping too much
  • Racing heart, dry mouth, increased perspiration, upset stomach, diarrhea
  • Changes in energy level
  • Fatigue that doesn't go away
  • Headaches, other aches and pains

If your doctor thinks that you suffer from depression, he or she may give you medicine to help you feel less tense. Or, he or she may refer you to other experts. Don't feel that you should have to control these feelings on your own. Getting the help you need is important for your life and your health.

Gratitude

Some people see their cancer as a "wake-up call." They realize the importance of enjoying the little things in life. They go places they've never been. They finish projects they had started but put aside. They spend more time with friends and family. They mend broken relationships.

It may be hard at first, but you can find joy in your life if you have cancer. Pay attention to the things you do each day that make you smile. They can be as simple as drinking a good cup of coffee or talking to a friend.

You can also do things that are more special to you, like being in nature or praying in a place that has meaning for you. Or, it could be playing a sport you love or cooking a good meal. Whatever you choose, embrace the things that bring you joy when you can.

Ways to cope with your emotions

There are many ways to help you cope with the feelings you may be experiencing. In addition to the methods below, you can find more resources and support online.

  • Express your feelings: People have found that when they express strong feelings like anger or sadness, they're more able to let go of them. Some sort out their feelings by talking to friends or family, other cancer survivors, a support group or a counselor. But even if you prefer not to discuss your cancer with others, you can still sort out your feelings by thinking about them or writing them down.
  • Look for the positive: Sometimes this means looking for the good even in a bad time or trying to be hopeful instead of thinking the worst. Try to use your energy to focus on wellness and what you can do now to stay as healthy as possible.
  • Don't blame yourself: Some people believe that they got cancer because of something they did or did not do. Remember, cancer can happen to anyone.
  • Don't try to be upbeat if you’re not: Many people say they want to have the freedom to give in to their feelings sometimes. As one woman said, "When it gets really bad, I just tell my family I'm having a bad cancer day and go upstairs and crawl into bed."
  • Choose when to discuss your cancer: It can be hard for people to know how to talk to you about your cancer. Often loved ones mean well, but they don't know what to say or how to act. You can make them feel more at ease by asking them what they think or how they feel.
  • Find ways to relax: Whatever activity helps you unwind, you should take some time to do it. Meditation, guided imagery and relaxation exercises are just a few ways that have been shown to help others.
  • Be as active as you can: Getting out of the house and doing something can help you focus on other things besides cancer and the worries it brings. Exercise or gentle yoga and stretching can help.
  • Participate in things you enjoy: You may like hobbies such as woodworking, photography, reading or crafts. Or find creative outlets such as art, music or dance.
  • Look at what you can control: Some people say that putting their lives in order helps. Being involved in your healthcare, keeping your appointments and making changes in your lifestyle are among the things you can control. Even setting a daily schedule can give you a sense of control. And while no one can control every thought, some say that they try not to dwell on the fearful ones.
Love + Medicine

Every day, Gundersen Health System delivers great medicine plus a little something extra—we call it Love + Medicine.

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