Cancer brings with it many difficult emotions. Anxiety, fear, anger, depression and resignation are common. But so, surprisingly, is a sense you may experience of having been born into a new life. My friend Francis Weller, who co-leads the Cancer Help Program with me, calls a cancer diagnosis a “rough initiation.” He says you may find you are reborn—and that there is no going back. I had that experience after a heart attack when I was 59. I felt as if I had entered an entirely new world. Everything looked different to me.
So the “difficult emotions” may not only be the so-called “negative” ones. It can also be profoundly difficult to know what to do with an experience of feeling reborn. Transcendent experiences may go hand in hand with deep suffering. You may feel new engagement with the meaning of life, with spirit, with what really matters in your life. Along with the suffering can come experiences of deeper awareness, expanded consciousness, the healing power of love, the reality of spirit, and much more.
Living with anxiety, fear, uncertainty, anger and confusion is a common experience after a cancer diagnosis. There is no single answer, but there is a great deal that you can do.
Take a deep breath and explore some of the following options.
Anxiety is a common symptom among people with cancer. According to Cancer.net, anxiety may be described as feeling nervous, “on edge” or worried. A normal emotion, it alerts your body to respond to a threat. However, intense and prolonged anxiety is a disorder which may interfere with your daily activities and relationships. Anxiety may make coping with cancer treatment more difficult and may also interfere with your ability to make choices about your care. Therefore, identifying and managing anxiety are important parts of cancer treatment.
The Society for Integrative Oncology evidence-based clinical practice guidelines cite the following complementary approaches as being useful in an integrative plan to manage anxiety:
- Mind-body approaches including these:
- Massage from a trained massage therapist
- Therapies based on a philosophy of bioenergy fields, such as these:
Medical cannabis is reputed by some to reduce anxiety, although a 2018 review found insufficient evidence to support this use. In fact, for some, cannabis can increase feelings of uneasiness or anxiety, especially the strains that are higher in THC.
Stress is a natural response to fear and uncertainty, but it can rob you of your ability to think clearly, make good decisions, and interact well with others. Stress reduces your body’s ability to fight invaders and heal. Read more about managing stress here.
A cancer diagnosis often causes distress, as can cancer treatments. Typically, doctors don’t ask about distress, and patients don’t say anything unless they’re asked. Your quality of life during and after cancer treatment, and even the success of your treatment can be impaired by high distress. Common symptoms of distress include these:
- Sadness, fear, and helplessness
- Anger, feeling out of control
- Questioning your faith, your purpose, the meaning of life
- Pulling away from people, including those close to you
- Concerns about illness
- Concerns about your social role (as a mother, father, caregiver, and so on)
- Poor sleep, appetite, or concentration
- Depression, anxiety, panic
- Frequent thoughts of illness and death
Distress is often eased with the health-supportive measures described on the website.
Common in people with cancer, depression is a treatable mood disorder that may be accompanied by physical, behavioral and cognitive symptoms. If depression is prolonged or severe, functioning can be impaired. Depression may make it harder to cope with cancer treatment. It may also interfere with your ability to make choices about your care. As a result, identifying and managing depression are important parts of cancer treatment.
“Depression is not only important psychologically but also can increase inflammation and alter some immune system functions. This can promote conditions for tumor growth, invasion and metastasis.”
Patients should tell their care providers about symptoms of depression such as these:
- Loss of interest in activities that you previously enjoyed
- Frequent crying
- Withdrawal from friends or family
- Loss of motivation to do daily activities
- Decreased ability to concentrate
- Difficulty making decisions
- Memory problems
- Negative thoughts
- Loss of appetite
- Insomnia of hypersomnia (excessive sleeping)
- Sexual problems
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
Decision making under pressure
You may feel pressured to make immediate decisions without enough information. Pilots use the TDODAR model to respond quickly—and wisely—in life-threatening situations. Cancer patients can, too. Read more
Tapping into love and support
Everything becomes easier when you have people who can listen or help. Read more about sharing love and support here.
Cancer treatments can be hard on your body, but you can build up and maintain its performance by giving it the tools, fuel, and support it needs to function optimally.