How to Handle Difficult Emotions after a Cancer Diagnosis

How to Handle Difficult Emotions after a Cancer Diagnosis

5 Tips to Help You Through It

by Laura Porter, PhD, and Emily Patterson, MSW, LCSW

Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, are currently receiving treatment, or are trying to figure out your “new normal” after treatment, you may find yourself dealing with some difficult emotions. Worry, sadness, helplessness, and frustration can all be part of the package. Additionally, if someone you care about has cancer, chances are you may be feeling some of these same emotions as well. 

This is especially true now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While everyone is affected in some way by the pandemic, the impact is amplified for people coping with illnesses like cancer. Not only are you navigating frequent medical appointments, which may include extra safety protocols, but you are also particularly vulnerable to the virus. These added challenges may bring up or intensify negative emotions, such as loneliness, fear, worry, and anger

Everyone is different. For some, feelings of worry or sadness are minor and fleeting. For others, these feelings may be persistent and overwhelming. Most people, however, are probably somewhere in the middle. There are no right or wrong ways to react to a cancer diagnosis – or to a pandemic. However, if you find yourself struggling with difficult emotions during this time, these five tips can help you better manage your feelings and bring some balance to your life.

1. Know that negative feelings are normal. 

Give yourself permission to feel how you feel. A cancer diagnosis brings difficult emotions and feelings of uncertainty even under the best of circumstances. When coupled with the stresses associated with the coronavirus pandemic, these emotions may be even more intense. 

Having negative feelings doesn’t mean that you are weak, or pessimistic, or not trying hard enough – it means that you are human. Rather than brushing your feelings aside, hiding them, avoiding them, or treating them as taboo, try to accept your feelings and find a way to honor and express them. Even simple activities like journaling, drawing, prayer, and meditation can help you make sense of your feelings and move through them.

If you find yourself stuck in sadness or worry, or have thoughts about hurting yourself, it is critical that you talk with your doctor right away.

2. Talk it out. 

While you may not be able to be together with your loved ones physically, it is important to find ways to connect safely, such as videoconference calls. Talking about your feelings with people you trust can help you better process difficult emotions.  

Cancer survivors and their loved ones are often reluctant to share their worries with one another because they’re afraid of placing an emotional burden on the other person. However, research shows that open communication helps both survivors and their loved ones cope effectively with the difficult emotions brought on by cancer. It is particularly helpful if you can listen to one another without trying to reassure the other person or jumping right into problem-solving mode. Just listen first. If there’s a problem that needs solving, you can work on that once you fully understand the other person’s perspective. Open communication with your loved ones can help you draw strength from one another, grow closer together, and better support one another.

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For both survivors and their loved ones, a cancer diagnosis often brings up thoughts about death and dying. While this can be scary or depressing, recognizing and accepting the limited nature of life can also help you rediscover what is most meaningful to you. Think about all the things that have deeply affected you, that have made you who you are. Ponder the ways in which you connect with life. Consider your priorities for how you want to spend your time. Talking with your loved ones or a professional counselor about these topics, or even just journaling about them, can help you feel less hopeless and more in control. 

For many people, going through cancer can be isolating. If you are feeling isolated, you may find it helpful to connect with others who are facing a similar situation. Many hospitals and communities have support groups for cancer survivors and family caregivers. Due to the pandemic, many of these have gone online. Ask your healthcare providers if they can point you to a support group in your area, or check out organizations like the American Cancer Society, the Cancer Support Community, and CancerCare, as they also offer online and telephone support groups. Talking with other survivors (or caregivers) can help you explore your feelings. It may also give you a fresh perspective and help you feel understood, supported, and less alone.

For many people, going through cancer can be isolating. If you are feeling isolated, you may find it helpful to connect with others who are facing a similar situation.

3. Do things you enjoy. 

Between your medical appointments and keeping up with everyday responsibilities, it can be hard to find the time or energy to do things you enjoy. But research shows that regularly engaging in pleasurable activities can have a powerful positive effect on your mood. 

Of course, the pandemic may limit what you can do, so you may have to get creative to find activities that are safe. It can be something as simple as listening to music, sitting on the porch and enjoying a cup of coffee, or watching a good movie. Try to get outside if you are able; fresh air and nature are powerful mood boosters. Additionally, trying a new activity (like an online yoga class) or learning a new skill (maybe through a video tutorial) could be an enjoyable change of pace. 

One activity that may be especially helpful during these times of uncertainty is meditation. Just 10 minutes per day of meditation practice can help lessen feelings of anxiety, stress, and anger, allowing you to feel more in control of what is happening in your life and the world around you. You can find numerous free guided meditations online and through apps. 

If there are activities you enjoy that are strenuous, you may need to be creative in how you approach them. If you pace yourself and take frequent breaks, you might find you can do more than you thought. Lower your expectations, set reasonable goals, and celebrate your ability to accomplish them. No matter what activity you choose, try to immerse yourself in the activity, relish it.

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4. Stay active. 

Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing, but research shows that exercise can help you feel better, both emotionally and physically, during and after cancer treatment. Plus, physical activity doesn’t need to be strenuous to be effective. Stretching, yoga, gardening, and leisurely walking can all be beneficial. The key is to do it in a smart way, so you don’t injure yourself or become overly fatigued. 

It’s a good idea to check in with your medical team before trying a new exercise, or activity. Starting slowly is important. You want to ensure that your body is challenged but not stressed. For certain activities, you may also need to explore safe alternatives that allow you to be physically distanced from others. 

If you are caring for a loved one with cancer, exercise (along with other methods of self-care) is essential. If you don’t take care of yourself, you are not going to be able to take care of your loved one. Taking the time to do things like attending to your own health and medical needs, exercising regularly, and getting adequate sleep is not selfish; it’s a critical part of effective caregiving.

5. Work with your healthcare team. 

Sometimes people feel rushed during doctor’s appointments; you may think your doctors and nurses are too busy to talk with you about your feelings, or that it’s not their job. On the contrary, they are concerned about your emotional health and can give you valuable support and resources. They can also help you manage troublesome symptoms, such as pain and fatigue, which can contribute to depression and other challenging emotions. 

Having negative feelings doesn’t mean you are weak, or pessimistic, or not trying hard enough – it means you are human.

However, they can’t help you if they don’t know what you need. If you find yourself stuck in sadness or worry, or have thoughts about hurting yourself, it is critical that you talk with your doctor right away. You might also consider asking for a referral for palliative care. While many people equate palliative care with hospice, this type of treatment is more than just end-of-life care. The goal of palliative care is to help people with serious illness (and their family members) have the best possible quality of life by managing their pain and other distressing symptoms and addressing their psychological and spiritual needs.

Finding Balance

Once you recognize that difficult emotions are a normal part of the cancer experience, you can use a variety of resources to help you cope with them. Find a healthy balance between attending to your feelings (and making sense of them) and doing activities that engage your body and your mind. Be kind and patient with yourself – and take it one day at a time. How you feel right now is not how you’ll feel forever.


Dr. Laura Porter

Dr. Laura Porter (left) is a clinical psychologist and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. You can follow Dr. Porter on Twitter @lauraporterphd.

Emily Patterson

Emily Patterson (right) is a licensed clinical social worker, both at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC. 

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2021.

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