Understanding the Emotional Stages of Cancer

Cancer patients often say they feel their life is divided into two stages: before the cancer diagnosis and after the cancer diagnosis. 

Why do we see such a dramatic division in our lives over this event–more, even, than over marriage or having a child? Well, unlike these happy events, a cancer diagnosis is a stark, unexpected, and unwelcome harbinger of our mortality. Even when the prognosis is good, having cancer means that you may have to make changes in your life: deciding on and pursuing medical treatment; assessing the financial impacts of care; having to make lifestyle changes in terms of employment, diet, and so on. 

Of course, different people cope in different ways, and your emotional response will depend upon a lot of factors in addition to your personal temperament, including the type of cancer, the stage of cancer, and the prognosis.

At Beacon Cancer Care, we have experience helping cancer patients not only with the treatment aspects of their care, but by offering supportive services to our patients to help them work through the practical and emotional journey that accompanies a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The emotional stages that cancer patients experience are entirely normal, and you should not be hard on yourself if you experience them or find it difficult to push your way through them. Here are some of the feelings you may have to contend with.

Emotional Responses to Cancer

Disbelief: “This can’t be happening to me.” One common response to a cancer diagnosis is disbelief. Despite knowing people who have had cancer, it seems difficult to accept the reality when we are the ones who receive the diagnosis. Part of that disbelief stems from the fact that it disrupts our own vision of our future–when we make future plans, cancer is not usually part of that picture. It can be difficult and unsettling to let go of our previous assumptions and potentially reassess or redefine our future goals and plans. 

Anger or resentment: “Why is this happening to me?” While we often consider anger to be a “negative” emotion in which we should not indulge, it is a fairly normal response to a cancer diagnosis. Not only does a cancer diagnosis potentially disrupt our future plans, but if the prognosis is not good, we can also be angry that our future may be taken away from us.

You should allow yourself to feel anger, so long as you do not do anything destructive to yourself or others by acting your anger out in harmful ways. Let your support system know how you are feeling so that they can better understand and be able to comfort you. Find ways to channel your anger in positive and healthy ways, and know that, eventually, you will get beyond this stage. If you think you cannot manage your anger or it is causing serious problems, consult a trained therapist or mental health professional.

Fear or Anxiety: “What is going to happen to me? What should I do?” Cancer can give you dozens of worries, from big-picture concerns about what treatment you should pursue and how much your care will cost to smaller concerns about what you should eat or whether you should still go on that family trip next month. But you do not have to deal with these issues alone. Your family and friends can give you emotional support, and a cancer center like Beacon Cancer Care can provide you with helpful resources and connections to ensure your questions are answered and your concerns are addressed.

Often, your fear and anxiety are a result of having too many unknowns. At Beacon Cancer Care, we provide services such as financial counseling that can tell you in plain terms what your insurance will or will not cover, and help you learn about ways to cover your medical and other expenses. We also offer other supportive services for nutrition and care coordination.

With our support services, while you may not be able to actually eliminate all your big-picture worries, you will be able to know what your challenges are so that you can take steps to manage them, and regain some of that control and confidence that you may have lost.

Loss or Depression: “Where do I go from here?” With your life undergoing so many changes, you can sometimes feel adrift at sea, having lost your anchor of a cancer-free life. But there can also be importance and meaning in your new challenge and journey. 

Allow yourself to mourn the loss of your “before the cancer diagnosis” life if you need to, but then concentrate on the good things that remain in your life, as this can help ease the grief. In fact, many people eventually find that cancer helps them to focus on the really important and meaningful people, events, and things in their lives that may have been taken for granted or that did not get enough attention. 

However, if you find yourself sinking into despondency, seek professional help. Coping with your new situation will require you to take affirmative steps, and depression can hinder you physically as well as emotionally from doing what you need to do to get better.

Acceptance: “I have cancer, but I will keep moving forward.” At some point, you will probably learn to accept your condition–simply because it is your reality. This helps you to be calmer and more pragmatic about what your cancer means. You may still cycle through feelings of anger, anxiety, and fear, but from a more balanced standpoint.  

Most importantly, do not give up hope. Cancer treatments have improved exponentially over the last decade, and they continue to improve every day. Beacon Cancer Care specializes in keeping abreast of all the latest treatments for all types of cancer, and we even offer opportunities to be involved in innovative new therapies through participation in ongoing clinical trials, if any are suitable for you. 

Call Beacon Cancer Care

Struggling with emotions is an expected part of a cancer journey, but you don’t have to carry the burden alone. Our caring team of professionals is ready to offer you the support you need. From financial counseling to emotional support referrals, Beacon truly stands beside you every step of the way. Give Beacon Cancer Care a call today, and take the first step towards a better tomorrow.