How do you talk about cancer?

When you talk about cancer you will discover a healthy form of relief.

Estimated read-time: 12 minutes

  1. Telling people about your cancer
  2. What are the emotional stages of cancer
  3. Coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis
  4. Asking for help when you have cancer
  5. What is a cancer support group?
  6. How does counselling help cancer patients?

Telling people about your cancer

Saying the words aloud, telling people you have cancer, breaking the news and seeing the reactions on your loved one’s faces is extremely difficult to do.

Getting you head around the fact that this is happening to you, in the here and now, is a very surreal experience. A cancer diagnosis can immediately make you feel isolated, alienated and alone, as it can feel that no one else is in this position and therefore could ever understand.

It is tempting to ignore or put off relaying the news, especially if the diagnosis is a difficult one. Some selflessly do not want to burden those around them, whilst others feel so alone in their lives and do not know who exactly to turn to.

To initially talk about cancer may be the last thing you would want to do. Becoming detached and withdrawn is an option, becoming an island and retracting from others, internalising and restricting your feelings is possibly not the best idea.

However, by choosing to not talk about cancer and not facing the inevitable you may however deny yourself of the love, support and connection which you need and which only others can give you.1

Many people will want to support you, but it is also important to create space in the day to focus on spending time with and talking to those closest to you, your inner circle. They are the ones with whom you can speak frankly and who know you best. They are the ones who know the latest details of your treatment plan, the stage and prognosis of your cancer, so that you don’t have to constantly be retelling and updating the ‘story’ to your wider circle of colleagues and acquaintances.

Appoint a close friend to help your caregiver manage all the social support; the phone calls, the texts, the social media. By filtering out all the noise so that you can talk about cancer on your own terms and get on with your treatment plan and focus upon your recovery.

The suffocating nature of all aspects of the illness in their entirety which cut through all your thoughts and conversations can slowly take over and erode your life. In your pre-cancer life, you may have been working and had a social life which took you out of the house every day. Therefore, it is also important to try to factor in some headspace into your day to get out of the house and live as normally as possible. Any talk about cancer can happen when you want it to.

Getting out and about gives you back a sense of normality, a sense of control, perspective and vitality. By reclaiming part of your day or week for yourself, you can leave behind the worry, the research, the medical regimen and appointments. It means that you can feel a sense of freedom, even for that short time and not become enslaved by the world of cancer.

Try simple activities which will nourish your soul, such as; arranging time to meet with friends, having a reflexology session, a massage, going for a walk, a coffee or even to the cinema. There is no room for guilt in putting your needs first. By placing that protective bubble around you, you will not only help your mental health, but your physical health will benefit.

What are the emotional stages of cancer?

What are the emotional stages of cancer?

It is normal and a reasonable reaction to experience a wide range of negative emotions throughout your experience of cancer such as;

  • anger
  • blame
  • guilt
  • shame
  • confusion
  • shock
  • anxiety
  • depression2
  • loneliness
  • injustice.3

The healthy response is to fully feel these true emotions but then let them out in order for them to pass. Even though you probably already know this, the realities of getting yourself out of what feels like quicksand can be easier said than done.

For some, complicated grief reactions can develop when the inner turmoil refuses to settle, and stable adjustment does not occur. By clinging to the ‘before’, what might have been or should have been in your life you are resisting the flow of life which only can lead to suffering.4 The negative emotions your problems create can start to control you in an unhealthy way and your mental health can start to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders.5

This continued upset can pose a problem as intensely dwelling upon the same negative thoughts on repeat wastes energy which could be re-directed into acceptance and unlocking healing in your body and mind6 following your successful anti-cancer treatment.

It may feel very exposing or unnatural to let go of big emotions and let those around you see what you are feeling when you talk about cancer. Yet, trying to supress your reaction and your feelings for the sake of others around is not a good idea, as you will only serve to damage yourself. These compressed, intense feelings will only mean that at some stage they will explode out of you intensely, potentially damaging your own mental health and your close relationships.

In fact, being open with your emotions will help your overall psychological adjustment to the life changes that are happening to you. By being emotionally open you will have better communication and understanding from those around you and as a result. When you talk about cancer you will attract more social support into your life.7

Coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis

When coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis, your mind automatically goes into panic mode even if the type, stage, treatments available and prognosis are good. Inner talk about cancer can become uncontrolled.

These emotional ups and downs pull you internally from one extreme to another as you try to rationalise and get some control over your emotion-fuelled, gut reaction to the news. Your mind will swing from the absolute worst-case scenario to the best possible outcome almost on a moment to moment basis, despite any facts you have been given.

In the thick of the moment, it can be almost impossible to be grounded enough to be able to have the required objectivity be able to control or escape your internal world. Any negative thoughts can distort your perception of reality and can give you an outlook which is clouded by pessimism at every turn.

In this state, your current mind-set can misinterpret the facts and, as catastrophising becomes a habit and all outcomes end in the worst-case scenario. This all or nothing extreme thinking can become irrational and fatalistic which will lead to many stress-related problems.8

Your reaction initially may not feel like a choice but with reflection you can choose to re-frame the situation as positively as possible, even if the only positive that can come from a dire prognosis is to simply resolve not to be destroyed by the impact. How you talk about cancer to yourself, how you frame the situation to yourself, will be crucial to the way you react and cope under the pressure.

Either you are your own best friend inside or your worst enemy when it comes to inner talk. Your explanatory style is under your own control and it is you who chooses what the narrative is and how you are treated by yourself.

Your inner voice can either be supportive, kind and beneficial or quite the opposite, a force that compounds emotional pain and negativity which inflicts blame and suffering upon every situation. Initially your thoughts will be out of control but gradually your mind will settle, and you have the ability to direct those thoughts towards the positive or the negative.

Asking for help when you have cancer

Asking for help when you have cancer

You are not alone in this trauma, there are people who care about you and your situation whether you believe it or not.

Some people are surrounded by big families, lots of friends and acquaintances who are eager to show their support, with whom you can talk about cancer. Others are living far away from family, have busy working lives and although surrounded by people may feel very alone.

A diagnosis of a serious illness can panic you into thinking that you have no one to turn to but there is a whole community of survivors out there. One positive of the pervasiveness of this disease is that having invaded so many people’s lives, cancer is a disease that many have experienced personally or in close proximity. Everyone knows someone who has suffered, even if they haven’t had the disease themselves. As a result, you will find that there is plenty of support, empathy, love and hope out there. There are plenty of people able to talk about cancer if and when you feel the need.

Open up to people, let them in. You will be bolstered by the solidarity of those who have experienced similar situations and want to help.

No matter how strong a person you are, a diagnosis of cancer puts someone on the back foot, you are fragile and in need of support. It is completely natural to seek the support and comfort of others, especially in times of crisis and distress so don’t hesitate to call on those around you.

There will be many people you will find through this experience that are there to help. Primarily you should turn to your medical team for support which consists of a multi-disciplinary team of mainly your;

  • oncologist
  • specialist nurse
  • primary physician
  • pharmacist
  • dietitian
  • counsellor.

They as individuals and collectively, are a great source of information, support and guidance and are there to give you an overall perspective of your journey.

You will also have cancer charities with helplines, complementary therapists, support groups both online and offline, religious or spiritual support from your community if you are connected that way, alongside your friends and family to lean on.

There are, however, barriers which stop people from easily accessing help. For example, you may find yourself in such a dark place that it is impossible for you to reach out and it is important to note that mental health struggles can be invisible to those around you.

If you are in such a position and if you can, tell a friend or one of your medical team that you aren’t capable of organising mental health treatment and ask them to seek the professional mental health assistance you need on your behalf.

You may have never asked anyone for help, it seemingly goes against your grain and makes you feel uncomfortable. If independence is important to you, re-frame the idea of asking for help as a source of pride that you can open up and share enough of your difficult situation to ask for help.

Another common barrier to asking for support is knowing exactly what to ask for? You may have to think first about what practical and emotional support might consist of?9 The task others take on themselves is to willingly help you; your job is to work out what you need help with.10 For many, on a practical level help with household duties; cleaning, cooking and the laundry are easy areas to ask for support with. Childcare, financial paperwork and research into the illness are also areas which you can ask for help with.

What is a cancer support group?

Emotional support can come from simple activities that will open up conversations such as spending time with your friends or supporting you through therapy. This is your time to ask for help, you cannot and should not do this alone. Everyone needs someone, or in fact many people to turn to.11

Often although friends and family are an invaluable resource to help you get through this, sometimes you need to reach out further than your inner circle for support.

Support can come from many areas and you may gain strength from numbers, making group support your preferred form of support. In person, group support can be accessed through organised hospital or charity groups or online through many great specific forums.

To know that you are not on this journey alone, to be able to relate to someone who finds themselves in the same circumstances at the same time, can be very comforting.

Meeting

Having somewhere to turn where you can openly talk about cancer and express your emotions without judgement or misunderstanding is vital. This connection with others in a similar situation can help control feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.12

When you feel like you belong and a bond develops, motivation and positive behaviours are fostered and grow out of these relationships.13 This mutual emotional support is self-reinforcing; as you feel more open to express your feelings and gain the benefits of the group, in turn so will others.14

There are different types of support groups; clinical and psychosocial, online and offline along with specific groups depending upon the type, stage and prognosis of your cancer. Therefore, it is important to find the right fit for you and your circumstance.

To be able to gain the positive benefits to your overall health you need to be able to connect with people you feel can understand you, at a time and place which suits you. A positive group which is still hopeful yet still realistic,  made up of people who are willing to talk about cancer in a supportive way. The best way groups will support each other going through a similar situation and will not dominated by one individual.

How does counselling help cancer patients?

Cancer is a common, significant and known threat to life, but also a threat to life as you knew it; body image, work, relationships, finances, self-confidence will all be affected. In order to fully adjust, you need time to get your head around all that is happening and discover your best way of coping. You need to process this from all angles and think through the emotions that are triggered.

Counselling is there to facilitate the release which comes from talking and will also help you navigate the big emotions which are difficult to process such as anger, grief, fear and sadness.15

Professional psychotherapy aims to provide a safe environment to help you become more self-aware16 but will also give you the practical coping tools to;

  • mange stress
  • implement lifestyle changes
  • monitor negative thoughts
  • problem-solve
  • plan positive activities
  • communicate better
  • learn to relax
  • set achievable goals.17

You may feel that individual counselling may be your preferred form of support. Perhaps the thought of having to talk about cancer and open up in front of a group is not what you need right now, or perhaps hearing other people’s difficult stories is too much for you to bear.

Seeking professional help from someone who is a sympathetic listener, with whom you can talk about cancer freely without judgement is amazing support. Such counsellors have the experience of dealing with this type of situation is far better than simply dismissing help if a support group isn’t for you.

Your medical care should include access to a cancer-specialist counsellor. If not, you can self-refer through your oncologist or a local cancer charity will be able to put you in touch with someone who can help. Speaking to a counsellor may be helpful at any stage from diagnosis, at cross-roads in your treatment plan or into survivorship as you will face different challenges at every point.18

If you think the information on this new website would be helpful to others, please like and share the word.

Recommend to others facing cancer, on support forums, social media, in person or by email. Thank you.

References

  1. Chamberlain, J., 2012. The Cancer Survivor’s Bible. 1st ed. United States of America: Long Island Press.
  2. Moorey & Greer, S., 2002. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for People with Cancer. 2nd ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  3. Bernad et al., D., 2010. Social support for cancer—Selected problems. Reports of Practical Oncology and Radiotherapy, [Online]. 15(2), 47–50. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3863307/ [Accessed 5 December 2018].
  4. Tolle, E., 2016. The Power of Now. 3rd ed. Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
  5. Gawler, I., 2015. You Can Conquer Cancer. 3rd ed. Great Britain: Harper Thorsons.
  6. O’Connor, D., 2006. The Healing Code. 1st ed. Ireland: Hodder Headline Ireland.
  7. Standford Center for Integrative Medicine (2019) Ten Steps toward Emotional Well-Being, Available at: https://med.stanford.edu/survivingcancer/coping-with-cancer/coping-with-cancer.html (Accessed: 22nd March 2019).
  8. Powell, T., 1997. Free Yourself from Harmful Stress. 1st ed. Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley Book.
  9. Standford Center for Integrative Medicine (2019) Ten Steps toward Emotional Well-Being, Available at: https://med.stanford.edu/survivingcancer/coping-with-cancer/coping-with-cancer.html (Accessed: 22nd March 2019).
  10. Lorig, Dr. PH K., Holman, H., MD, Sobel, D., MD, MPH, Laurent, D., MPH, Gonzalez, V. MPH, Minor, M. RPT, PhD (2014) Self-management of Long-term Health Conditions, 1st. edn., United Kingdom: Bull Publishings.
  11. Southwick, S. M. & Charney, D. S., 2018. Resilience. 2nd ed. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Seligman, Ph.D., M., 1991. Learned Optimism. 1st ed. United States of America: Alfred A. Knopf.
  13. Wiking, M., 2016. The Little Book of Hygge. 1st ed. United Kingdom: Penguin Life.
  14. Namkoong, K. (2013) ‘The Effects of Expression: How Providing Emotional Support Online Improves Cancer Patients’ Coping Strategies’, Journal of the National Cancer Institute Monographs, (47), pp. 169–174. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3881999/ (Accessed: 18th June 2019).
  15. Southwick, S. M. & Charney, D. S., 2018. Resilience. 2nd ed. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Furnham, A. (2012) Psychology, 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know, 2nd edn., Great Britain: Quercus.
  17. Moorey & Greer, S., 2002. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for People with Cancer. 2nd ed. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  18. Peat, P., 2016. The Cancer Revolution, Integrative Medicine- The Future of Cancer Care. 1st ed. London, UK: Win-win Health Intelligence Limited.

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