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Grief – The Unspoken Side Effect of Cancer

by Sharon Roth-Lichtenfeld, ACC, CPC, ELI-MP, Paula Holland De Long, ACC, CPCC, and Tambre Leighn, MA, CPC, ELI-MP

Wellness image

Journaling is a healthy way to express your emotions.

A kick in the gut, ice water running through your veins, your heart dropping into your stomach – this is what you can feel when hearing those three words: “You have cancer.” In that instant, your life changes. Shock, disbelief, fear, and chaos accompany the news. Overwhelm and confusion kick in.

Then there is the unspoken side effect of cancer. Its name is grief. It is the emotional and physical response set in motion by a painful event, major change, or loss. Contrary to popular belief, grief is not a disease. It is a wound to your heart, and it needs to be treated as such. If you ignore it, the wound will fester. If you tend to it, it will mend with a faded scar as a healthy reminder of the transformation you went through.

Acknowledging your grief opens the door to the possibility of what’s next.

Author of Article photo

Sharon Roth-Lichtenfeld

When grief appears, what’s next?
The doorway opens for questions revolving around what will be lost. We take inventory, often unconsciously, centered on the potential changes and outcomes. These losses or changes show up in all areas of our life. Why? Because grief is sneaky, and it manifests in places we don’t expect. Grief, like cancer, has far-reaching tentacles.

Cancer survivors and their caregivers experience many hidden layers of loss. Becoming aware of and exposing these layers is critical to your health. While certain aspects of life, such as relationships, intimacy, or finances, may be affected by grief for both the person with cancer and the caregiver, it may not occur at the same time or to the same degree.

Author of Article photo

Paula De Long

Emotional concerns, like fear of death or incapacity, loss of future dreams, reduced independence, and diminished fun, joy, and happiness, often create grief. Financial instability, work issues, shifting roles, and physical challenges also contribute to grief and loss.

In general, people with cancer are more likely to grieve about physical changes, loss of ability to handle normal responsibilities, and fear about what will happen to others. Caregivers are more likely to put their own needs second and shoulder a high burden around finances, and are less likely to talk about their grief. Both cancer survivors and their caregivers tend to hold grief inside, often hoping to spare or be strong for the other person.

Learning to experience grief in a healthy way unlocks opportunities to discover new meaning and purpose in life. It is also a sign of strength.

How do we grieve in healthy ways? What choices and actions can we take to support ourselves through grief and create meaning?

Author of Article photo

Tambre Leighn

♦ Awareness is the first step in understanding loss. Clarifying your areas of struggle can help you generate a measure of your well-being or need for support.

♦ Strengths and values are the foundation for positive emotions that pull us through painful and difficult times. Knowing your top three values and strengths reconnects you to who you are and what is important to you. Use them to make choices while discovering new, emerging strengths.

♦ H.E.L.P. stands for honor, experience, learn, and practice. Honor your emotions, feelings and thoughts. Acknowledge and validate them; they are real. Experience and express them in healthy ways, such as visualization, meditation, journaling, art, breathing, positive affirmations, and gratitude. Learn how your thoughts create your emotions, attitude, and actions. Learn to ask for and receive help. Then, put it all together and practice.

Nobody chooses the cancer experience. However, you can choose to uncover the grief and acknowledge its hidden losses as part of tending the wounds of cancer. If you or someone you love has cancer, tending the wounds of grief for both of you is part of healing. Acknowledging your grief opens the door to the possibility of what’s next.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sharon Roth-Lichtenfeld, Paula Holland De Long, and Tambre Leighn, all certified professional coaches with life experience and expertise either as survivors, caregivers, or pre-vivors, are founders of the Cancer Survivorship Coaching Coalition. They provide education, training, and tools to create meaningful, action-oriented survivorship plans. For more information, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2012.