How to Cope - Survivor How to Handle Difficult Emotions After a Cancer Diagnosis

5 Tips for Effective Coping

It’s OK to talk about your worries and fears. In fact, it’s good for you to open up.Finding out  that you have cancer – and then facing the often long, arduous course of cancer treatment – can leave you feeling confused, overwhelmed, lonely, sad, scared, helpless, frustrated, or all the above. If someone you care about has been diagnosed with cancer, chances are you’re feeling some of these difficult emotions as well. Everyone is different; some people sail through the experience with only mild bouts of worry or sadness while others struggle all the way through. Most people, however, are somewhere in the middle. No matter where you are on this spectrum, these five tips can help you cope with difficult emotions after a cancer diagnosis.

1. Know that negative feelings are normal. 
When you’re going through a difficult experience, and cancer certainly qualifies, there will be times when you feel less than cheerful. You may even be downright miserable. Having negative feelings doesn’t mean that you’re weak, or pessimistic, or not trying hard enough – it means that you’re human. 

Rather than brushing your feelings aside, hiding them, avoiding them, or treating them as taboo, try to accept your feelings and find a way to honor and express them. Even simple activities like journaling, drawing, prayer, and meditation can help you make sense of your feelings and move through them. 
Going through cancer can be isolating. If you are feeling isolated, you may find it helpful to connect with others who are facing a similar situation.2. Talk about it. 
Cancer survivors and their loved ones are often reluctant to share their worries with one another because they’re afraid of placing an emotional burden on the other person. However, research shows that open communication is beneficial for both parties. It’s particularly helpful if you can listen to one another without trying to reassure the other person or jumping right into problem-solving mode. Just listen first. If there’s a problem that needs solving, you can work on that once you fully understand the other person’s perspective. Open communication with your loved ones can help you draw strength from one another, grow closer together, and better support one another.

For both cancer survivors and their loved ones, a cancer diagnosis often brings up thoughts about death and dying. While this can be scary or depressing, recognizing and accepting the limited nature of life can also help you rediscover what is most meaningful to you. Think about all the things that have deeply affected you, that have made you who you are. Ponder the ways in which you connect with life. Consider your priorities for how you want to spend your time. Talking with your loved ones or a professional counselor about these topics, or even just journaling about them, can help you feel less hopeless and more in control.
Having negative feelings doesn’t mean that you’re weak, or pessimistic, or not trying hard enough – it means that you’re human.For many people, going through cancer can be isolating. If you are feeling isolated, you may find it helpful to connect with others who are facing a similar situation. Many hospitals and communities have support groups for cancer survivors and family caregivers; ask your healthcare providers if they can point you to one in your local area. Organizations such as the American Cancer Society, Cancer Support Community, and CancerCare also offer online and telephone support groups. Talking with other survivors (or caregivers) can help you explore your feelings. It may give you a fresh perspective and help you feel understood, supported, and less alone. 

3. Do things you enjoy. 
Between your medical appointments and keeping up with everyday responsibilities, it can be hard to find the time or energy to do things you enjoy. But scheduling some pleasurable activities into your day can have a powerful positive effect on your mood. Think about the little things that give you pleasure or meaning. It may be something as simple as listening to music, sitting on the porch sipping a cup of coffee, or watching a good movie. Try to immerse yourself in the activity, savor it, relish it. 

If there are activities you enjoy that are strenuous (such as dancing or yardwork), you may need to be creative in how you approach them. If you pace yourself and take frequent breaks, you might find you can do more than you thought. Lower your expectations, set reasonable goals, and celebrate your ability to accomplish them.

4. Be active. 
Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing, but research shows that exercise can help you feel better both emotionally and physically during and after cancer treatment. Plus, physical activity doesn’t need to be strenuous to be effective. Stretching, yoga, gardening, and leisurely walking can all be beneficial. The key is to do it in a smart way so you don’t injure yourself or become overly fatigued. 
Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing, but research shows that exercise can help you feel better both emotionally and physically during and after cancer treatment.It’s a good idea to check in with your medical team before trying a new exercise or physical activity. Starting slowly is important. You want to ensure that your body is challenged but not stressed. Working out with a partner may also be helpful, as you can encourage and support each other. 

If you are caring for a loved one with cancer, exercise (along with other methods of self-care) is essential. If you don’t take care of yourself, you are not going to be able to take care of your loved one. Taking the time to do things like attend to your own health and medical needs, exercise regularly, and get adequate sleep is not selfish; it’s a critical part of effective caregiving.

5. Work with your healthcare team. 
Sometimes people feel rushed during doctor’s appointments; you may think your doctors and nurses are too busy to talk with you about your feelings, or that it’s not their job. On the contrary, they care about your emotional health and can give you valuable support and resources. They can also help you manage troublesome symptoms, such as pain and fatigue, which can contribute to depression and other negative emotions. 

However, they can’t help you if they don’t know what you need. If you find yourself stuck in sadness or worry, or have thoughts about hurting yourself, it is critical that you talk with your doctor right away. You might also consider asking for a referral for palliative care. While many people equate palliative care with hospice, it is more than just end-of-life care. The goal of palliative care is to help people with serious illness (and their family members) have the best quality of life possible by managing pain and other distressing symptoms and addressing their psychological and spiritual needs. 

Once you recognize that difficult emotions are a normal part of the cancer experience, you can use a variety of resources to help you cope with them. Find a healthy balance between attending to your feelings (and making sense of them) and getting involved in activities that engage your body and your mind. Be kind and patient with yourself, and take it one day at a time.


Dr. Laura PorterDr. Laura Porter is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. You can follow Dr. Porter on Twitter @lauraporterphd.


Emily PattersonEmily Patterson is a licensed clinical social worker, both at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC. 


This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2017.