Coping With Emotions

A young woman hugs her dog as they sit together on the edge of a pier overlooking a lake

After a diagnosis of cancer, it is common to feel a wide range of emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, or fear. You may also be having trouble adjusting to changes in your appearance because of cancer and its treatment. Review signs and symptoms to look out for and discover tips to help you manage these emotions. 

Feeling Lonely or Isolated

Sometimes people with cancer feel isolated and alone. You may feel lonely even when you are around loved ones. Navigating a cancer diagnosis and treatment can keep you from your social life and work. You may feel sadness or a sense of separation from others. You may feel like no one understands what you are going through. But there are people who understand and can help. You do not need to face cancer feeling alone.

It is common to have feelings of loneliness and isolation when facing cancer. This is likely a short-term problem. These feelings often fade with time. Extreme or prolonged feelings of loneliness or social isolation can lead to depression, which can impact your cancer treatment and outcomes. If you are experiencing feelings of loneliness or isolation, it is important that you ask for help.

Tips to Cope With Loneliness or Isolation

  • Tell someone how you feel. This can be family, friends, your doctor or nurse, an oncology social worker, or fellow cancer survivors.
  • Let your doctor, nurse, or social worker know if you need more support than you currently have. There are community programs that can help you feel less isolated and assist with practical concerns.
  • Join a support group or reach out to other people with cancer. You may be able to do this in person, online, or by phone. Ask your social worker or nurse for suggestions. Or, find a caring and supportive Cancer Support Community location near you.
  • Speak to a therapist with experience working with cancer. There is nothing shameful about counseling. Many cancer survivors go to counseling. It can reduce the stress cancer causes.
  • Consider prayer or spiritual support. Many find prayer and religious/spiritual guides to be useful support tools.
  • Keep a journal to record and release your feelings.

Caregivers of people with cancer can also feel alone, even when they are around people who care about them. If you are a caregiver, you may feel separated from your usual work or social activities. It is common to feel a sense of sadness or separation from others who seem to be going about their everyday lives.

As a caregiver, you may feel that no one understands what you are going through. This is a very hard emotion to cope with. You are doing everything possible to care for your loved one, yet you both may feel lonely. This is common. You are not alone in feeling frustrated or helpless. It is important to keep supporting your loved one, but also seek resources that help you connect with others.

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Feeling Nervous or Depressed

Nervousness or Fear

Studies report that about half of all people with cancer feel some sort of anxiety. Further, 25% of people with cancer report feeling a great deal of anxiety. Nervousness and fear are common reactions to stressful life events like cancer. It is common to feel some fear and worry about a medical procedure or the financial cost of treatment. 

Many caregivers also worry about their loved one’s fears and their own fears. It is also common to worry about medical procedures or financial pressures associated with cancer treatment.

Generally, we can manage the nervous feelings before a doctor’s appointment or while waiting for test results. However, if you notice that your feelings of nervousness and fear are impacting your daily life, you need to speak with your healthcare team.

Signs and Symptoms of Nervousness or Fear*

  • Feeling worried all the time 
  • Not being able to focus 
  • Not being able to “turn off thoughts” most of the time
  • Trouble sleeping most nights
  • Frequent crying spells 
  • Feeling afraid most of the time 
  • Having symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, dry mouth, shaky hands, restlessness, or feeling on edge
  • Anxiety that does not get better with distraction or staying busy
*From the National Cancer Institute, Adjustment to Cancer, Anxiety and Distress PDQ, 2014

 

Allow yourself to experience these feelings without feeling like you are out of control. This is a normal part of emotional healing through a difficult experience.

Sadness or Depression

People with cancer, their family members, and their caregivers are under a lot of pressure. No matter the treatment or stage of cancer, you are dealing with stressful issues. You may feel vulnerable, sad, or scared of recurrence or death. You may struggle with problems that impact your ability to go about daily life or work. Many emotions fade over time, but some may develop into clinical depression, intense anxiety, or panic. Having cancer does not mean that you should feel sad or depressed all the time.

Signs and Symptoms of Sadness or Depression*  

  • Ongoing sad, anxious, or empty feelings 
  • Feeling hopeless, guilty, worthless, or helpless 
  • Feeling irritable or restless 
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once enjoyable, including sex 
  • Feeling tired all the time 
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions 
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Sleeping all the time 
  • Overeating or loss of appetite 
  • Thoughts of death and suicide or suicide attempts 
  • Ongoing aches and pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease with treatment
*From the National Cancer Institute, Adjustment to Cancer, Anxiety and Distress PDQ, 2014

 

If you feel so depressed that you have thoughts of suicide, help is available. You can call 9-1-1 or go to a nearby emergency room. You can also contact your regional or national hotline to be connected to help:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (U.S.): 800-273-8255 
Suicide Prevention Service (Canada): 833-456-4566 or text 45645
Canada Kids Help Phone: 800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868 
Distress Centers of Greater Toronto (Canada): 416-408-4357 
Quebec Suicide Prevention Hotline (Canada): 866-277-3553

Tips to Cope With Nervousness or Depression

  • Pay attention to the frequency and intensity of your feelings of nervousness, fear, sadness, or depression.
  • Talk with your family, friends, doctor, or healthcare team about how you feel. Don’t wait until you are so nervous or depressed that you cannot function the way you need to.
  • Find ways to relax such as meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises. Explore yoga lessons, meditation videos, and gentle exercises in our Mind Body Studio.
  • Ask your healthcare team about medications that may be helpful.
  • Join a support group. You can learn how other people manage their emotions.
  • Meet with a therapist experienced in working with people impacted by cancer.
  • Use humor. Find something to laugh about every day. 
  • Consider prayer. Many people have shared that prayer helps manage the roller coaster of emotions.
  • Keep a journal to record and release your feelings.

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Feelings About How You Look

Often, people experience changes in their physical appearance because of cancer and treatment. It can be hard to adjust to these changes. Some changes will be temporary while others may be long-lasting. You may feel that people look at or treat you differently. Others may ask questions or make comments about the way you look. Take some time to think about how you will respond. You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to. You can simply tell people that it is a private matter.

Talk with your healthcare team about what body changes you can expect and any worries you have about your current appearance. Ask for help in managing these changes.

Weight Changes

Gaining or losing weight because of cancer and its treatment is quite common. Slight increases or decreases in weight during cancer treatment are usually not a problem. However, gaining or losing a lot of weight may affect your health and ability to undergo treatment. It can also be very hard emotionally, both for you and your loved ones. Staying physically active can help with both weight gain and loss.

Talk with your healthcare team or a registered dietitian if you are concerned about your weight. Some cancer programs and community organizations have exercise or activity programs. Ask your healthcare team if they can recommend a program in your area.

Hair Loss

Hair loss can be a very upsetting experience for many people. It is normal to be upset about the loss of your hair and how it affects your appearance. Not all cancer treatments will cause hair loss and, in most cases, your hair will grow back. Wigs, toupees, scarves, and hats are some options that people use. Others embrace their baldness for a period and feel comfortable as they are. You should do what feels right for you.

Read More About Coping With Cancer Hair Loss

Skin Changes

Some types of treatments (chemotherapy, radiation, or biologic therapy) can cause changes in the condition of your skin. You might also notice that you are more sensitive to the sun than usual. Be sure to wear sunscreen, even in winter. Most of these changes are not serious and will get better. Report any changes you notice to your healthcare team immediately.

Tips to Cope With Changes in Appearance

Changes in appearance can leave you feeling sad, angry, or less confident than you used to be. You may feel a sense of loss. These feelings are normal and understandable. If you are having a hard time with the emotions that can come with these changes, find someone to talk to. You can talk with your doctor, nurse, oncology social worker, or a fellow cancer patient. You might consider joining a support group to learn how others cope with changes in their appearance.

Find a caring and supportive Cancer Support Community location near you.