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The Emotional Roller Coaster Called Cancer
Hearing you or loved one has cancer can temporarily shatter your entire outlook of life. Treatments, testing, and the physical impacts of the disease and interventions used to manage cancer may wreak havoc on your life.
Most people, even if they are told they have a highly treatable cancer which has an almost 100 percent cure rate, have to take a step back when diagnosed. If cancer goes away only to return, the emotional rollercoaster continues.
Being confronted with a diminished quality of life or actual loss of life is terrifying for most people. Emotions often intensify and unfinished business within families and friends may rear up in your face.
Let’s look at some challenges and ways to cope with the emotional upheaval that cancer often results in.
When You First Hear the Word "Cancer"
Most people don’t hear much after the words “you have cancer” are spoken to them by a health care provider. Even if the term has been brought up in prior conversations as a possible diagnosis, it usually isn’t until these words are spoken that you even minutely believe it.
You may feel destroyed, angry, exceptionally calm, scared, betrayed, sad or completely numb. It’s likely that you will feel all of these emotions and more.
Some of them may be felt immediately, while others pop up at unexpected times. Your emotions may be changeable or frozen. One thing is for sure: your emotions and outlook about life are very likely to change.
Treatment May Precipitate Frustration, Exhaustion and Anger
When cancer is first diagnosed, your primary focus is learning about your illness and exploring treatment options. Depending upon the type of cancer you have, options may be few or many.
For example, if you have an early stage melanoma of your skin, the treatment is to have it removed surgically. However if you have early stage breast cancer, you may need to choose whether you prefer to have a mastectomy with no radiation treatments or a lumpectomy with radiation therapy.
You might need to decide if you want breast reconstruction immediately, later on, or not at all. Your oncologist may offer you opportunities to participate in clinical trials. Sometimes you have time to weigh options carefully, while at other times cancer presents as a medical emergency which must be treated immediately.
You need to select where you want to have your treatment performed and develop a plan for making care possible. If you have small children or others who are dependent upon you may need to make arrangements for care.
Transportation may be challenging. Finances might be tight, particularly if you have to travel long distances for treatment or if you have high deductibles on your insurance plan.
You may need to apply for medical assistance if you don’t have health care insurance. Your work schedule may need to change. You might need to take a leave of absence or request time off for treatment.
All of this is frightening, exhausting and often overwhelming. You may have little energy due to the disease and treatment.
Coping with the logistics of having cancer may make you feel angry, helpless and dehumanized. You might struggle with your own self-image if the cancer disfigures your body or if you need to rely on others for help.
Family members and friends are often willing and able to provide assistance, particularly when cancer is first diagnosed. National and local cancer organizations may provide some assistance as well. Your oncology office should provide you with links to resources.
Having cancer puts a strain on healthy relationships. Unfortunately, cancer sometimes arises when relationships have challenges already.
Cancer may cause involved parties to put their differences aside, often temporarily, or it may make negative emotions intensify. Sometimes cancer serves as a wakeup call; what seemed to be unsurmountable differences may disappear overnight when the preciousness of life and the relationship is revealed.
Once treatment is started or deemed successful, many people feel a renewal of life. Spiritual connections deepen for many; however others feel betrayed by their God and lose faith, particularly if the cancer has a poor prognosis. Many cancer victims focus on fulfilling their dreams and live more fully.
When Cancer Returns or Isn’t Curable
Sometimes cancer comes back. In fact, many cancers are now viewed as chronic illnesses. Periods of remission may be interspersed with intense episodes of illness that require exhausting treatments.
While many people are blessed with fantastic support systems, isolation is all too common for many cancer victims and their families. It takes creativity and perseverance to maintain some semblance of a “normal” life.
At some point, hospice care may need to be considered. People and families are often reluctant to turn to hospice until just days or weeks before the end of life ensues. This is unfortunate as hospice services are available if the expected lifespan is six months or less.
Hospice personnel and volunteers are specially trained to help patients and family members maintain the highest quality of life possible. Spiritual, social and emotional support is available by well-qualified experts who understand the vast emotional challenges cancer presents. Having support is key to maintaining a healthy outlook.
Hospice workers can help family members and patients find common ground. Often individuals have conflicting opinions about stopping active treatment.
Family members may want the patient to keep fighting, while patients may know they don’t have the strength to do so. Spiritual crises may arise. Guilt, anger and depression may occur. Exhaustion often impacts the outlook significantly.
Living in the moment often becomes desirable. Gratitude for the love and support of others, relief at having a comfortable day, and simply having another day with loved ones becomes of primary importance. The miniscule everyday concerns of everyday life don’t seem to matter anymore.
Carrying on After a Loved One Dies
Cancer affects the family’s outlook forever after a loved one passes away. Initially, grief takes hold. Guilt is common, as is anger.
Confusion about finding direction and meaning in life is prevalent. Many family members feel guilty for experiencing feelings of relief, particularly if a loved one has been ill for a long time or has experienced great suffering. It is important to recognize all of these emotions are normal and will subside in time.
Connecting with others via grief support groups is helpful for many. Emotional support, assistance addressing practical matters, and fellowship is available. Joining with fellow grievers is important because others who have lost someone close to them understand how those left behind feel better than people who haven’t lost a loved one.
Healing occurs, but it takes time. Everyone heals at their pace. Eventually you return to a normal life. It will never be the same, but life can still be full and meaningful — it just takes time.