Brutal, powerful and relentless is how I would describe the emotional impact of cancer. Cancer is diagnosed, treated and monitored in the medical world, a world of science, facts and measurements. The emotional impact of cancer is as individual as we are and somehow gets mislaid in the medical melee which follows diagnosis.
Cancer was an unwelcome arrival 30 weeks into my second pregnancy. I can only describe what followed as a horrific experience which left me traumatised for many years afterwards. I am not alone in experiencing the intense and devastating wake cancer leaves behind.
Unlike other illnesses cancer has a huge emotional impact and it dragged me to some dark and desolate places and to the brink of a mental health breakdown on more than one occasion. Here are my 5 tips for dealing with the emotional impact of cancer:
- Allow your emotions. Each emotion is there to tell us something. Sadness tells us about what we have lost, anger tells us that our values have been infringed, fear that we are some way in danger and isolation that the meaning to our life has changed. These are all normal and important parts of the emotional impact of cancer and if we don’t allow and express them we haven’t dealt with the emotional impact of cancer and can’t fully recover from it.
- Look at what your emotions are telling you. It can be helpful to look at the reason behind the individual emotions cancer creates to really understand the impact they have on your life and then to take an action to address this. I was sad because I had lost the meaning to my life. In time I built a new meaning and did the things I had regretted not doing such as going to Uni and travelling. I was angry at cancer taking me away from precious time with my children and infringing my value of being a good mother. When I was well enough I would spend every waking moment I could with them.
- Seek support early. Cancer is an unpredictable and life threatening illness. Very few people can manage the emotions cancer creates on their own. Ask for emotional support as early as you can as this can take time to put in place. Emotional support can look different for us all. I found an online forum initially was beneficial to help normalise what I was experiencing and then counselling to process my emotions. For others it could be their family, friends, GP, Cancer Support Centre, Macmillan Nurse, charity or there are a plethora of social media pages available. Keep looking until you find support which is right for you.
- Work on what you can change. Much of cancer is out of our control and this can be another difficult area to navigate. My perfect body became scarred and stiff but if I wanted to live I would need to have the treatment and accept the side effects. I now focus on what I can be responsible for. Taking my medication, attending medical appointments, living a healthy life style, reducing risk factors and living every single precious second of life with passion and vigour. This has been a liberating exercise as I can channel my time and energy into what I can control.
- The emotions will reappear. Once cancer arrives it’s hard to fully remove it. There will be ongoing medication, tests and treatments possibly for life. Each time we connect with cancer this can trigger the emotional impact it had. I now allow for difficult times emotionally around appointments, tests and in particular anniversaries, the day life changed forever.
There is no set way or time frame in which to recover from the emotional impact of cancer. Be open, honest and proactive in how cancer affected you and what emotional support you need. I hope in years to come there is greater funding available to support the emotional impact of cancer which enables people to process the emotional impact of cancer and helping them to return to live a fulfilling life.
Rebecca has had cancer three times, she is a qualified and experienced counsellor and lives in West Sussex. She recently published ‘The Two Faces of Cancer’ and currently works as an Information and Support Worker at Mummy’s Star.
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