You and Your Cancer - It's Okay to Grieve

I have many dear friends in their 60s and 70s, and the harsh reality of life is that many of them have faced or are facing a cancer diagnosis. Some have won their battles, some have lost, and some are still fighting, but all of them had to come to terms with their diagnosis and spend time grieving their loss of good health.

Cancer is very personal to me. Both of my parents have had to deal with a cancer diagnosis a couple of times each. My dad had skin cancer and prostate cancer, and sadly he lost his battle after his prostate cancer spread to his liver. My mom has had to deal with a breast cancer diagnosis - twice - and melanoma, but thankfully she has beaten it all. I heard a doctor tell me, "You have cancer" two years ago, and although I'd expected to hear those words at some point in my life given my family history, I didn't expect it in my 50s.

We've all had to deal with our own prognosis, diagnosis, circumstances, fears, and worries. My cancer journey was totally different from my mom's and hers was totally different from my dad's. Loss of health, loss of a body part, loss of normalcy, loss of the ability to work or any number of other losses. And one thing we all have the right to do is grieve for our loss(es). My skin cancer resulted in a loss of about four inches of my right calf. But because I knew people who were fighting for their lives, I felt absolutely guilty for feeling any kind of grief over mine. It wasn't until a nurse looked me in the eyes and said, "Honey, you are a cancer patient. There are no degrees of cancer here, you either have it or you don't, and you're fighting cancer just like everyone else," that I allowed myself to acknowledge my loss.

On my weekly walk through the library stacks, I ran across a copy of Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Cancer Diagnosis; 100 Practical Ideas for Coping, Surviving, and Thriving by Alan D. Wolfelt PhD and after reading through all 100 ways, I'm sharing 10 of those that I particularly liked.

  1. Give Yourself Permission to Grieve and Mourn: People with cancer often set aside or discount their own grief, instead focusing on worrying about and supporting their loved ones. You will likely try to minimize the threat to your life and your loved ones, but the threat barged into your life and will probably, at least to some extent, remain forever. You deserve the healing gift of mourning your pre-cancer self.

  2. Practice Patience: The cancer journey is often long and uncertain, and your cancer experience will become a part of who you are. Be patient with yourself, your care team, and your friends and family. Just like you, they are doing the best they can. Practicing patience means relinquishing control, but you can't control the particulars of what life will continue to lay before you on your journey.

  3. Nurture Hope: If your diagnosis is recent, you may think you can't get through this. You can and you will. Sometimes people with cancer struggle with feeling that maybe they don't even want to survive, that they cannot go through another surgery or another round of treatment. Only you can say for sure how much is too much, but a week or month from now, you may find yourself feeling that life is worth living again. For now, think of how important you are to your family and friends.

  4. Be Honest With Your Children: Children can cope with what they know, but they can't cope with what they don't know. Open, honest, loving communication is good for children of any age. Use the word "cancer." Don't scare them unnecessarily, but don't sugarcoat, either. Remember cancer is a journey and lots of small conversations along the way are better than one big "tell-all."

  5. Take a Deep Breath: With the stress of your cancer, anxiety may result in taking rapid, short, shallow breaths, making you feel dizzy and lightheaded. Simply taking a deep breath can trigger a natural relaxation response. Breathing slowly and deeply is on way to turn off your stress reaction. For tips on breathing to reduce anxiety, check out this article from Medical News Today.

  6. Befriend Your Fear: Facing the prospect of death is understandably very scary. You can choose to befriend your fear by exploring it instead of suppressing it. Try not to be afraid of your fear. It's your friend because it's giving you valuable information: what you're most afraid of tells you what is most important to you.

  7. Take Things One Day at a Time: Some days will be harder than others, yet each day is a new opportunity to grieve, mourn, love and connect. Keep faith that tomorrow might be a great day.

  8. Beware the Nocebo Effect: The nocebo effect is the placebo effect's evil twin. Unlike the placebo effect that improves symptoms based simply on belief, the nocebo effect is the opposite. People who are warned about pain or side effects before a treatment are more likely to report pain or side effects afterward. The mind is a powerful thing. If we convince ourselves that cancer will kill us, there is evidence to suggest that we could be tipping the scales in cancer's favor.

  9. Beware the Snake Oil Salesman: Cancer can make us vulnerable, especially when we're scared and sometimes desperate. Desperation can make us vulnerable to the promise of miracle cures and false hopes. But, modern medicine doesn't have it all figure out when it comes to cancer, so if you want to try unorthodox treatment or therapy, be sure to let your care team know since certain remedies might interfere with your medical treatments.

  10. Understand That Your Grief Will Never End: Your cancer grief will never completely go away. Even if you completely recover and are cancer free for decades, you will never truly "recover" from the losses of cancer. Even cancer survivors are not the same after cancer as they were before cancer. If you mourn well and work through your grief, you will reconcile yourself to your cancer experience.

There are many more (90 to be exact) ideas in this book on how to heal your grief after a cancer diagnosis and I learned a lot from reading them. For the first time, I don't feel like I have to minimize my cancer just because I didn't go through chemo or radiation. It's awesome that surgery was all that was necessary in my case, and it's okay that I felt grief over having had cancer.

If you are facing cancer, I hope this helps ... even a little.

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