Navigating the Emotions of Cancer

 It’s Okay-There is Nothing Wrong With You.

The emotions that cancer brings up are often messy, confusing, beautiful, big, conflicting and at times, inconvenient. There’s not a set schedule or roadmap to follow, you can’t wrap your feelings in a neat, pretty box; they spill out at times and they hide at others. Over time and with practice, you can learn to embrace your emotions without judgement or resistance and let your emotions be sources of information. This will help you to feel more prepared for when feelings do come up and you will also be able to use your experiences to plan for potential triggers - like the start of a new treatment regimen, when you’re physically depleted, scan days, the end of treatment, and cancerversaries. 

Connecting with your honest and real feelings that come up around cancer can be a powerful step towards healing and integration.  By acknowledging what you are feeling, without resistance, you can begin to move forward and activate your natural coping mechanisms that will support your increased adjustment and adaptation to cancer and cancer-related milestones over time. This is the sweet spot of resilience; the capacity to recover quickly, to spring back into shape with elasticity.

Permission to feel what you feel. Here’s the real truth…

You’re going to have feelings related to a cancer diagnosis and too many of the events along the way. You’ll have feelings that are clear and obvious, you’ll experience feelings that are confusing, conflicting and surprise you with their timing. You may have really big feelings and also have subtle feelings; all of which may feel new and different. 

You may have feelings about the diagnosis, new treatments, new healthcare providers, new symptom, ending of treatment, upcoming medical appointments, and scans. You may have feelings about your body, treatment ending, scans not being clean or scans being clean, having less medical appointments, new treatment regimens, new side effects, no longer having side effects.  You may have feelings about money, about returning back to life, reflecting on the experience of cancer and the impact of your life. You may have feelings long after cancer and you may have lots of feelings right away - there’s no predictable time table in which you’ll experience your feelings. The reality is that all of these events, these moments, are a potential to have feelings - and that’s okay. It’s normal and nothing is wrong with you. You are a human learning how to adapt and cope with the situation of cancer.

The experience of cancer may break your heart wide open and it may not. In Braving the Wilderness, Brene’ Brown writes, “We all have to find our own way deep into the wild. And… you’re not going to like some of the terrain.” For many people, cancer is the wild and a place of wilderness, the unknown that only you can navigate and discover for yourself. You are lost and become found through your own honesty and courage. There is no single road map for navigating emotional landscape of cancer, it’s different for each individual, although there are many similarities and common experiences among people impacted by cancer.

The research shows that it’s healthy to allow your feelings, to not shut off the “negative” or “bad” emotions or to force yourself to “be positive” or “happy” all the time. Having moments in which you allow the “hard” or “negative” emotions doesn’t mean you’re giving up, it just means you’re allowing the full expression of your emotions so you can also let them go. Avoiding, minimizing, dismissing your feelings will not help. The more you resist them, the bigger they get and the more they may negatively impact your daily life and health. Experiencing and processing your feelings is one of the most important ways you can help heal yourself. 

Navigating the emotional landscape of cancer can feel challenging and that’s okay, there is nothing wrong with you. Some people benefit from individual counseling or participating in an in-person group or connecting online with a community. There is a lot of support available and you do not have to do this alone.  Please consider talking with your healthcare provider or licensed mental health professional if you are interested in additional support or if you are concerned about your mental health and well-being.

Permission to feel what you feel

Feel angry, happy and sad-it’s okay.

Feel joyful, exhausted and scared-it’s okay.

Feel confused, numb and grateful-it’s okay.

Feel anxious, worried and depressed-it’s okay.

Feel hopeful, normal and overwhelmed-it’s okay.

Feel lonely, misunderstood and strong-it really is okay. There is nothing wrong with you. 


About Ali

Ali Schaffer, LCSW is a spark for change, a permission giver, and an illuminator. She has a private counseling practice in Nashville, TN and provides individual and group therapy for adults navigating life transitions, coping with health challenges, and desiring to live more fully. Ali has worked directly with people impacted by cancer since 2002 and engages her super powers of noticing along with creative techniques to help people write their own stories, create meaningful change and reconnect with their joy and purpose. She is a dynamic national speaker and contributes content for articles, online blogs and webinars on a variety of health and wellness topics.

Want to connect with Ali?

IG: @alischaffercounseling email: phone: 678.612.5805.

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