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Dealing with Difficult Emotions after a Cancer Diagnosis

by Laura S. Porter, PhD

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Scheduling some pleasurable activities into your day can have a powerful positive effect on your mood.

Finding out that you have cancer and then facing the often long, arduous course of cancer treat­ments can leave you feeling tired, cranky, scared, helpless, frustrated, blue, or all of the above. 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, land somewhere in the middle. Wherever you are on the spectrum, you may find the following suggestions helpful for managing the emotional challenges of cancer.

Recognize that negative feelings are normal.
When you’re going through a difficult experience, there will be times when you feel less than cheerful. Hav­ing negative feelings doesn’t mean that you’re weak or pessimistic – it means that you are human. Some people worry that admitting they’re having negative feelings will derail their progress, think­ing that in order to fight cancer, they must always remain positive. While it’s true that a positive outlook can be help­ful when facing a serious illness, both negative and positive emotions are nor­mal and valid. Trying to avoid negative feelings, or criticizing yourself for hav­ing them, will likely make you feel worse in the end. Instead, try to honor those feelings and find a way to express them.

Confide in a loved one.
Survivors are sometimes reluctant to talk with their loved ones about their worries be­cause they don’t want to burden them. However, research shows that open communication is beneficial for both survivors and for their loved ones. It’s particularly helpful if your loved ones can listen to how you’re feeling without trying to reassure you or solve the problem (not always an easy task). Be direct and tell your loved ones what you need, and encourage them to share their concerns with you as well. When you’re honest about your feelings, you and your loved ones are better able to provide each other with support.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Laura Porter

Accept help.
When coping with an illness, many people find it difficult to accept help from others. If you’re used to being the caregiver, it can be difficult to find yourself on the receiving end. But when you allow others to help, you provide them with a valuable gift. Think of it this way: By receiving, you are also giving. So try to relax and enjoy the generosity of others.

Manage troublesome side effects.
Pain, fatigue, and sleep difficulties often go hand-in-hand with depression and other negative emotions. Talk with your doctor if you’re experiencing these or other troubling side effects. There may be medications that can help. Comple­mentary therapies such as yoga and meditation, as well as light exercise, may also provide relief.

Take a break from cancer.
Between your medical appointments and keeping up with your everyday responsibilities, it’s often hard to find time to do the things that you enjoy. 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; they may be as sim­ple as walking the dog, sitting on your porch and enjoying a cup of coffee, or watching a good movie. Try to immerse yourself in the activity and enjoy it to its fullest. You may even want to ask a friend or family member to join you so you can enjoy their company as well.

Keep your healthcare providers in the loop.
You may think that they’re too busy or that it’s not their job to talk with you about your feelings. On the contrary, your doctors and nurses are concerned about your physical and emotional health. They can provide valuable support and resources, but they can’t help you if they don’t know what you need. More important, if you’re experiencing severe psychologi­cal distress that’s interfering with your ability to take care of yourself, or if you’re having thoughts of suicide, it is critical that you talk to your doctor right away.

There are many ways to care for your emotional health. The important thing is to communicate with your healthcare providers and find the strate­gies that best help you cope with the emotional impact of cancer.

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Dr. Laura Porter is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.