(Adapted from “The Emotional Impact of a Cancer Diagnosis," American Cancer Society, 2008)
When you are told you have cancer, the diagnosis affects not only you but also your family and friends. You may feel scared, uncertain, or angry about the unwanted changes cancer will bring to your life and theirs. You may feel numb or confused. You may have trouble listening to, understanding, or remembering what people tell you during this time. This is especially true when your doctor first tells you that you have cancer. It is not uncommon for people to shut down mentally once they hear the word "cancer."
There is nothing fair about cancer and no one "deserves" to have it. A cancer diagnosis is hard to take and having cancer is not easy. When you find out you have cancer, your personal beliefs and experiences help you figure out what the diagnosis means to you and how you will handle it. As you face your own mortality and cope with the many demands of cancer, you may look more closely at your religious beliefs, your personal and family values, and what's most important in your life. Accepting the diagnosis and figuring out how cancer fits into your life is challenging.
After you are diagnosed with cancer, you may feel shock, disbelief, fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness, grief, depression, and anger. Each person may have some or all of these feelings, and each will handle them in a different way.
Your first emotion may be shock, because no one is ever ready to hear that they have cancer. It is normal for people with cancer to wonder why it happened to them or to think life has treated them unfairly. You may not even believe the diagnosis, especially if you don't feel sick.
You may be afraid. While some people fear cancer itself, others may be afraid of cancer treatments and wonder how they will get through them. Fear of pain and suffering is one of the greatest fears people with cancer and their loved ones have.
You may feel guilty. You may ask yourself if you could have noticed your symptoms earlier, or wonder what you've done that may have caused the cancer. You may wonder if you were exposed to something at home or work that led to cancer. Or you may worry that other members of your family will also get cancer. At this time we do not know what causes most cancers. But a few are known to be hereditary, or passed from a parent to a child. This means if one family member develops it, others in the family may have a higher risk of developing it, too. This can cause even more concerns for the person newly diagnosed with cancer.
You may feel hopeless or sad if you see cancer as a roadblock to a life full of health and happiness. It is hard to feel positive and upbeat, especially if the future is uncertain. Just thinking about treatment and the time it will take out of your life can seem like too much to handle. Feelings of sadness or uncertainty can be made worse by your experiences with cancer.
You may have a sense of loss linked to your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Cancer can change your sense of self, that is, how you think of your body, yourself, and your future. Grief is a normal response as you give up your old ideas of yourself and begin to develop ways to cope with the new, unwanted changes in your life. It may take time for you to become aware of these losses and changes. It can help if you share your grief with someone close to you. If there is no one near you that you want to confide in, you might want to see a mental health professional. Your feelings need care too, just like your physical body needs care.
You might feel angry. While some people may not outwardly express their anger and frustration, others may direct their anger toward family members, friends, or health care professionals. This is usually not done on purpose. If you are only trying to vent your feelings, let people know that you are not angry with them and know it is not their fault. Also let them know that you don't expect them to solve your problems–you just need them to listen.
"The best prescription is knowledge."
-- C. Everett Koop, MD, former Surgeon General of the United States
Some people believe it is easier to face the reality of a new or scary situation if they learn as much as they can about it. This is especially true when you are dealing with a complex group of diseases like cancer. There is often a great fear of the unknown and uncertainty about what is going to happen. Knowledge can help lessen the fear of the unknown. You can learn a lot about the type of cancer you have, its treatment, and your chances for recovery.
Be your own advocate. Even though people facing cancer cannot change their diagnosis, they can seek out reliable, up-to-date information and talk to family members, friends, and their healthcare team. Finding good sources of support can help people with cancer take control of their situation and make informed decisions.
It's important to work through your feelings about cancer because how you feel can affect how you look at yourself, how you view life, and what decisions you make about treatment.
You will not be able to change many things in your life. Focus on what you can change to gain a greater sense of control over your situation.
Delores, cancer survivor: "Daily walks and, later, running helped me keep my sanity after I was diagnosed."
Other things you can do to deal with your emotions:
- Ask for support from family, friends, and others. Just having someone who cares and will listen to you can be very helpful. If friends or family members are not able to be supportive, find others who will. Health care professionals (such as social workers, psychologists, or other licensed health professionals) and support groups can be extra sources of support.
- Get spiritual support through prayer, meditation, or other practices that help you feel more at peace. You may want the guidance of a chaplain, pastor, rabbi, or other religious leader.
- Pay attention to your physical needs for rest, nutrition, and other self-care measures.
- Find ways to express your feelings, such as talking or writing in a journal.
- Allow yourself private time and space.
- Walk or exercise. It is a good idea to talk with your cancer care team about your plans before starting a new exercise program or activity.
- Find out what helped other patients and families cope with cancer, and/or talk with other people diagnosed with the same type of cancer.
- Make changes at home to create a healthier environment, and/or talk with your doctor about making healthy lifestyle choices.
- Feeling sad all the time, having trouble sleeping, or thinking about suicide are signs that you need professional help. Other symptoms that may need treatment include feelings of panic, intense anxiety, or constant crying. If you think you might need professional help, talk with your doctor.
In your journey with WM, consider also the following coping mechanisms:
- View your diagnosis from a different perspective–it gives you a much stronger perspective on life and living than others who don’t have such a diagnosis; life becomes much more precious and meaningful–which is actually quite rewarding!
- For most, the challenges of daily life lead to delaying the pursuit of special desires and endeavors and talents–a diagnosis with cancer, and especially with WM, can be viewed as quite liberating:
- Assess what you’ve always wanted to do in your life and find ways to pursue those goals and activities
- Assess what truly makes you happy and feel rewarded in life and pursue that. It could be volunteering and helping others, it could be gardening, it could be cooking, it could be artwork or crafts, or just spending time with family and friends
- Your diagnosis with WM is NOT a death sentence. It is a life sentence in the best sense of the term–it affords you the unique opportunity to view life from the perspective of someone who is more certain of his/her mortality (regardless of our health status, each day we are all one day closer to death and could die at any moment from any cause). It allows you the opportunity to focus on what gives you joy in your life and work to reduce or remove what gives you the most pain.
- Studies have shown that positive thinking and having a positive outlook on life, even in the face of a poor prognosis, go a long way toward prolonging your life with cancer and, most importantly, towards improving the quality of life you enjoy while you are truly alive!