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Riding the Emotional Roller Coaster
of Cancer

by Sandra Haber, PhD

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Tears, early morning wakening, anxiety, and depression alternate with hopefulness, cancer success stories, and plans for the future. Welcome to the emotional roller coaster of cancer – an extreme ride of changing feelings that affects almost every person with cancer and their caregiver. Many people worry about these up and down emotions.

Cancer survivors are often told to have a positive attitude, but I know that “positive attitude” is a misleading phrase. It usually surprises people when I tell them that a positive attitude includes negative and depressed feelings. These feelings are normal and healthy and are an important part of the adjustment process. After all, being diagnosed with and treated for cancer is a life-changing experience. For the first time, your sense of immortality is challenged, and your daily life is defined by doctors, schedules, and treatments. The psychological and physical losses of cancer can create a depressive response and take a toll on you and your family.

But the good news is that as you move through the cancer process, you will notice that your emotions will change. Perhaps the worrisome surgery is over with or you have reached the halfway point in your chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Suddenly, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You begin to meet people who are at the end of their treatments and others who have had cancer and have moved on with their lives. You realize that you are not alone and that many people have gone through this same dark tunnel. Soon, the cancer experience will become part of the past – unlikely to be forgotten, always present as part of your new self, but no longer in the forefront of daily life. Cancer anxieties and concerns will soon co-exist with the joys and hopes of everyday life.

As you move through the cancer process, you will notice that your emotions will change.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Sandra Haber

In riding the emotional roller coaster of cancer, here are some tips to help make your journey smoother:

  • There is good evidence that expressing your feelings has a positive impact on your health. Begin to give yourself permission to verbally express negative feelings of sadness, worry, and grief. Consider joining a cancer support group to have a safe place to unload feelings of sadness and to try on attitudes of hopefulness.
  • Not every feeling needs to be expressed in person-to-person contact. Consider finding alternate outlets for your feelings, including music, art, dance, and journal writing.
  • Ask your oncologist if you can speak to someone who has finished treatment for the same type and stage of cancer. Connecting with a long-term survivor of cancer can provide the needed hope to get you back on track.
  • If you feel too fatigued or find it too difficult to leave your home, consider using Internet support groups. The Internet is a wonderful tool for finding support and can be particularly helpful during periods of hospitalization.
  • Consider bibliotherapy – using books to provide psychological skills and support.
  • Create a healthy lifestyle that includes diet, exercise, and adequate sleep. Try to minimize any unnecessary stress.
  • Use physical activity as a natural medicine. Aside from being helpful for overall health and well-being, physical activity works as a natural antidepressant to lift your spirits.
  • Consider spending time with a pet. Pets can provide much needed physical contact and companionship as well as serve as a focal point that distracts you from the cancer experience.
  • Learn to use other activities to counteract depression. Examples of such activities are movies, books on tape, music, photo albums, knitting or crocheting, model airplanes, and computer games. Try to find at least two activities that work from a bed or an easy chair.
  • Know that some medicines and chemotherapy agents exaggerate feelings of depression. Your medical team is experienced with these side effects and can often provide an antidepressant that will counteract the impact of these medications. Trust your physicians and be sure to tell them about your psychological experiences.

Most cancer survivors experience the full range of emotions. Most survivors have had some bad days. Most survivors have had some sleepless nights. You are not alone. Experiencing some negative feelings is all part of the process of successfully coping with cancer. Learn to express your feelings and seek out supportive relationships. Most of all, take pride in your cancer survivorship.

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Dr. Sandra Haber is a psychologist practicing in New York City. She is the editor of Breast Cancer: A Psychological Treatment Manual and co-author of Men, Women and Prostate Cancer: A Medical and Psychological Guide for Women and the Men They Love. She can be contacted at www. DrHaber.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2008.