Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis

Fighting Cancer Diagnosis

Many individuals diagnosed never imagine hearing the words, “You have cancer”. This is especially true for those conscientious individuals who exercise, eat well, maintain a healthy weight, don’t abuse drugs and alcohol, or smoke. Nevertheless, in the United States in 2021, more than 1,800,000 new cancer diagnoses and over 600,000 cancer deaths are projected, and many of these patients could be described as noted above.

Every individual’s cancer journey will be completely unique. For some, if the disease is caught early, treatment may be short and life may quickly return to normal, or a reasonable version of normal.  For others, the journey may be long and arduous, involving months or years of doctor visits, surgery, radiation, scans, and maintenance medications.

Though the journey may vary, some reactions are common and quite normal in patients. These reactions may include:

  • Shock/denial. This is especially true for patients without any obvious symptoms before they are diagnosed , patients who are relatively young, and those without family histories of disease.
  • Anger. Patients leading full lives—with a job, possibly a partner or spouse, and children—are furious at having their lives upended. Once treatment begins, medical visits may seriously impact their ability to fulfill the many roles they may have had—worker, wife/husband, mother/father. Many patients will need to take medical leave from their jobs, and need extensive support from family and friends to help with their medical appointments, treatments, and recovery, as well as with their children and household duties.
  • Guilt. Some patients may question if there was something about their lifestyle that could have contributed to their cancer. Some may believe they are being punished for their personal failings, real or imagined. They may feel guilty about having to lean on others for support, and not being physically able to care for themselves and their children while undergoing treatment, and perhaps for a period of time after treatment concludes.
  • Depression. Depending on the type of cancer, and the resulting treatments, patients may experience scars, hair loss, weight gain/loss, and other side effects of treatment, some temporary, others more permanent. These changes can lead to a loss of self-esteem in patients due to their physical appearance and possibly impact their intimate relationships. In addition, the thought of treatments continuing in some form indefinitely, in terms of maintenance medication and/or periodic scans, can be overwhelming.
  • Fear. Fear may be present at any point in the cancer journey, including after treatment. Patients in remission may fear a return of their cancer. Yet at the same time, patients may feel a need to spare loved ones, and put up a brave front to reassure everyone “I feel good”, and “I’m back to normal”.
  • Dissatisfaction with old friendships/relationships. Patients who are suddenly faced with their own mortality are likely to reassess their relationships and decide to discard those relationships that no longer seem to provide appropriate and needed support.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, undergoing treatment, and facing uncertainty, it can be helpful to normalize the emotions you may be feeling. The knowledge that help exists in a variety of forms—from organizations such as the American Cancer Society, as well as individual and family counseling—can assist you in your cancer journey, and give you a greater sense of control and well-being.

Meyers, Laurie. (2020, May). Life after cancer. Counseling Today, 29-31.

Siegel, R.L., Miller, K.D., Fuchs, H. E. ,& A. Jamal. (2021). Cancer statistics, 2021. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 71 (1), 7-33. http://doi/org/10.332/caac.21654

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