How does cancer affect a person’s life?

Cancer brings a combination of medical, physical, emotional, interpersonal and spiritual challenges to your life.1

  1. What are the biggest challenges of having cancer?
  2. How does a cancer patient feel?
  3. How does the impact of cancer affect a family?
  4. Common fears of the impact of cancer
  5. How does cancer change a person?

What are the biggest challenges of having cancer?

A cancer diagnosis places a huge amount of strain on the individual and their families almost as immediately as the words are delivered by the oncologist.

The impact of cancer can be huge making this first step on this journey will be daunting as cancer is still fraught with uncertainty.

Not only is this a potentially life-threatening disease, but cancer and its treatment can leave you with long-term side effects which will leave your life forever changed. Your long-term quality of life could suffer as cancer leaves its mark upon your body image, physical abilities, mental cognition and self-confidence.

The impact of cancer will also bring wider implications for other areas in your life to be impacted for example;

  • family
  • relationships
  • work
  • finances
  • diet
  • exercise
  • fertility
  • spirituality
  • future plans. 2,3

Although there has been great progress made in improving outlooks, controlling side effects and developing new anti-cancer drugs, no matter what type, stage or prognosis, the impact of cancer can bring a shocking disruption to your life as you know it and an unwelcome, uninvited threat.

The pace of change a cancer diagnosis imposes upon your life can be truly heart-stopping. You feel immediately under pressure and almost before you mentally have caught up with what is happening, you have to rapidly learn to adjust to this new, parallel world of living with cancer.

New experiences, people, treatments and hospitals all feed into the surreal nature of becoming a cancer patient. At your lowest, emotions run at their highest. Absolutely everything is called into question and your mental health under strain, is tested to the extreme.

Life is paused against your will, your day has suddenly changed. As the full impact of cancer becomes apparent, work commitments fall away, family dynamics change, and you retract into the relative safety of your home. The arrival of the well-meaning visitors then forces you to have to confront the reality whether you like it or not.

Treatment decisions pend as you quickly try to understand the best course of action through research and plenty of questions. The symptoms of the cancer itself and the side effects of treatment put you on the back foot, disrupting your sleep, sapping your energy and impairing your judgement. What is the best next step? Are you able to access the best support? Who can help you get through this?

The true impact of cancer? Any security in life you have ever had is rocked and your worldview has changed.

Diagnosis and prognosis bring existential issues to the fore, as you stress over why this happened at this moment in your life? What do you really believe in? What the future will hold? All aspects of your lifestyle concern you as you start to worry about doing the right things to help your recovery. For example; are you eating the right diet? What supplements should you take? What exercise should you do? How should you manage the stress you are under?

With your whole life and lifestyle is thrown up into the air, it is normal to have feelings of detachment, alienation and isolation from the everyday lives of others.

To help you cope, it is useful to seek the emotional and practical support you need by connecting with others who have faced cancer through group support or from online communities. They will help you navigate every aspect of the journey with the aim of improving your quality of life.

Through local charities and your medical team there will be a safety net of support in all areas, not only counselling but other practical help such as home help, support with your children, body image workshops and financial concerns.

By reaching out you will discover that there is a whole world of support there for you to access, from people who understand what you are facing and who truly have the insightful empathy that you need and crave throughout.

How does a cancer patient feel?

The totality of the experience of having cancer can change how you feel about yourself on many levels; physically, emotionally, psychologically and interpersonally.4

Becoming a patient is a challenging re-definition of your life. The impact of cancer upon your sense of self can be total. As a cancer patient it is easy to lose your identity, become de-personalised by this disease and feel abandoned to fate.

Your new role can take you far from your previous life leaving your identity altered. You become immersed in the world of cancer; waiting around in hospitals and going to appointments is now what you do; discussing test results, treatment options and medical jargon become now what you talk about. When every part of you and your story begin to revolve around cancer, you start to identify more and more with being a patient.

You can feel so suffocated by the impact of cancer experience and so far detached from your previous life that it can be easier to think of yourself as defined by cancer. Those around you start to talk to you differently and act in strange way around you. This only serves to embed you further into this new role.

Being ill disrupts your life to a point where you can hardly remember a ‘before’. Before the broken sleep, the discomfort, the medical appointments and medication. It feels like cancer is in control now and everything else can either wait, or be rearranged.

The fact that you may not have seen this coming, you did not plan for this or prepare for it makes adjusting to your new, current situation in life all the harder.

Gradually you start to see less of your old self and more of the person with cancer, as the illness intrudes and increasingly takes up your time and energy.5 Changes to your body from the cancer or its treatment can make you feel different within, leaving mental scars that cannot be seen or even understood by anyone who has not lived with cancer up close.

Feelings of frustration, helplessness and irritation with your current situation can foster a resentment and hostility deep down, as you feel failed by your own body. You may find that your increasing loss of independence leaves you feeling uncomfortable and out of control as worries about discomfort, disability and dependency6 surface.

The ability to detach yourself from the illness itself is an important psychotherapeutic tool to protect your mental wellbeing.7 Preserving your self-esteem and maintaining your self-worth by keeping doing as much as you can of what made you, you before cancer is critical.8

According to the Standford Center for Integrative Medicine, patients who try to continue normal routines, keep doing activities they enjoy and still perform the usual roles in life as much as possible, tend to cope better psychologically.9

Modern medicine also attempts to help you maintain your sense of self as the pathology of the cancer itself is regarded as a separate entity to you as an individual. For example, you can say, ‘I have Stage 4 cancer’ and by doing so, you detach yourself from the disease, you see yourself as a person with cancer and are not defined by it.10

It is important to take any bit of control you can over the situation and actively resist being enveloped entirely by this experience which has the potential to crush your mind, body and soul if it is given the chance. Be determined to save a little for yourself.

Becoming a patient brings its positives too, the key is to embrace the love and attention you receive from those around you. This is a new way of living and it is important that you re-frame the situation as a life still worth living to the fullest it can be.

Any restrictions now in your life can be overcome or at least managed; use the support of your medical team to help you live well both physically and mentally. There is always a choice in the way you react, no situation is hopeless in the right light.

You now have the opportunity to put your needs at the top of the pile, to take a step back from the busyness of life and to reinforce your sense of self. Illness can permit you the untouchable excuse to do whatever you want to do and it is possible to find a new plain of happiness in this.

Not working, taking a mini-break or holiday if you can and having complementary therapies are not luxuries, these are necessities to have respite from the inner and outer turmoil and spend time with your closest family and friends. By investing in yourself now, your vitality will improve, and an increased sense of optimism and hope will be felt. The result will be that the quality of your life is improved, something which should be the goal behind all your decisions from now on.

How does the impact of cancer affect a family?

It can be difficult to communicate within families when emotions are raw. Heightened emotions of anger, fear and resentment can bubble under the surface. The extreme pulls and pushes of such intense emotions can be very testing, putting any relationship under stress.

In trying to protect each other, sometimes not talking about it and just living, passing the days, is easier. This combination of denial and the urge to protect each other can lead to miscommunication and isolation.

Cancer will test your relationship in ways you could never have imagined. However, in general, in a close, mutually supportive relationship you find comfort and support from each other. For example, you will find yourself being strong when they are weak and in turn, they will be strong when you are weak.

The whole dynamic of your relationship will change and now will revolve around cancer. Quality time within your couple has now become focused around the routine of caregiving duties; daily injections, adhering to medication and supplements protocols, discussing treatment options, infection control and nutrition-focused mealtimes. You become harnessed to the appointment schedule, your couple-time is reduced to sharing the drive to your medical appointments or waiting around in hospital waiting rooms.

Family roles and routines all change too, as the patient increasingly must spend more time withdrawn and resting and less time actively fulfilling the roles as before. Some days seem more normal than others, according to the phase of the disease and stage in the treatment cycle. This can bring distress to the whole family as it becomes painfully apparent how cancer is encroaching upon your lives.

The cancer journey can become a marathon. At the beginning there could initially be watchful waiting, delays in starting treatment or interruptions such as infections or nasty side effects which can slow or change treatment schedules.

However, the impact of cancer is immediate. All of a sudden, there is seemingly an endless array of medical appointments, counselling and complementary therapies which all need the logistics organized; transport, a companion, childcare, and time off work.

Cancer’s toll will drag and then continue some more. There will be ever more waiting. You continue to live in remission, and in hope, as the years pass. Where is the finish line? When will you really feel like it is over, and you are cured? The entirety of all this over the long-haul can become very wearing on yourself and your relationships around you.

The subsequent change in family dynamics can be torn in two different ways. Cancer has the potential to destroy relationships as patients and the families become torn apart by the pressure, turning away from each other to cope with the emotional pain instead of towards each other.

It is not possible to predict how you will react under such pressure and common attitudes such as; hostility, blame, defeatism and lack of faith can all cause emotional distress for everyone involved.11 Internal divisions and ruptures within families can happen slowly as individuals react to stress differently, or abruptly as friction occurs and family members cannot cope and choose to distance themselves.

On the other hand, many families gain a huge amount of strength from having experienced such a trauma together. They bond over the challenge they have overcome and understand each other better having had the opportunity to express their love for one another openly. As a result, they appreciate each other more, and they are able move on together in a positive way.

Cancer will also inevitably impact and change your relationship as well. The stresses upon a couple are intense and strain will be felt in all aspects of your partnership.

Roles will change as the caregiver, patient dynamic unfolds, and family life becomes disjointed. Your emotional response and individual outlook may also clash, as the ups and downs of hope versus catastrophe play out, not everyone is in sync with how they react.

Your sex life will be left changed and your ability to connect may be dampened by body confidence issues as the disease and its treatment take their toll physically. If your family is not yet complete, issues around the potential loss of fertility can also add another layer of immense stress.

Cancer Patient

Your thoughts as a couple will also turn to how your children are coping through all of this and you will naturally try to do everything you can to maintain stability, as much as possible, in their lives.

Common fears of the impact of cancer

Many patients will express a worry and fear as to how their cancer will affect their family, during treatment and beyond. The whole experience brings a series of challenges of differing intensities depending upon which stage of the journey you are on.

At the earliest point, when you suspect that the vague symptoms in your body could possibly be the warning signs of something sinister occurring, there can be a lot of self-doubt, denial and confusion.

In a bid to self-protect from the impact of cancer, you reassure yourself with blind optimism that this surely can’t be cancer, as that couldn’t happen to you. Then that train of thought will be immediately followed up by awfulizing and catastrophising every step of the way, by only seeing before you the dark clouds of impending doom.

When you do suspect cancer, thoughts can turn to fears of the treatment and potential of difficult side effects and pain. During treatment and beyond, common fears are of loneliness and isolation.12 Into survivorship you will be left wondering what will you be left to have to cope with on the long-term basis and how any residual side effects impact upon the way you can lead your life?

Enduring the impact of cancer and the changes it brings to your home life, work life and social life will all be of concern as your roles may have to change due to physical disability, impaired concentration, lasting mental health challenges or differences to your body image and self-confidence.13

If you are facing a poor prognosis, your common fears will be the same as everyone experiences in a dire situation.

Questions of faith and spirituality become important, pressing issues and your thoughts will turn to the reality of the experiencing the inevitable; what will the process of dying be like?14 You will also be concerned about the possibility of death and leaving your family and loved ones behind.15 Issues such as how the family will carry on without you and any unresolved family conflicts or potential future fractions may cause you distress if they are left unaddressed.16

When time is limited, fear surrounding how you have lived your life can arise as you feel a need to right any wrongs and leave nothing unsaid or undone.

How does cancer change a person?

With cancer, all manner of changes will occur to your body, your mind and your spirit.

In life, change happens to us all whether we want it to or not, some changes are predictable, and some are not. No, you did not ask for this, deserve it or want it, yet resisting the unfolding of life is futile and can serve no other purpose than to torment yourself.

The acceptance of change and the understanding that change is an integral part of life will lead you to acknowledging the huge life change you are going through which is crucial to managing stress levels. This heightened awareness will permit you to be kind to yourself and have the strength to take control of what you can; your attitude, treatment plan, exercise, nutrition, supplement regimen and your spiritual and mental wellbeing.

Then, you have let go of what you can’t control in the face of the impact of cancer, safe in the knowledge that you are doing your best.

In many instances, cancer comes as quite the shock, not only to the patient but to those around them as well. Managing other people’s stress-filled reactions to the situation is also out of your control. You cannot change the often clumsy and insensitive emotional out-pouring of others, only your reaction to them.

To be able to do this, you may be challenged to change certain aspects of your personality or attitude as the cancer experience and the aftermath slowly moulds and shape-shifts you into evolving into a stronger and wiser version of your old self.

For your own sanity and wellness, you do not need to take on other people’s emotions on top of your own, it is time to be focused and put your needs first to survive the impact of cancer and then go on to thrive.

Appreciate that this is a traumatic time, the impact of cancer can be devastating on many levels. However, it is important to remember that everyone will have to face their own moments of suffering, you are not alone in your struggle. Unfortunately this chapter in life reflects the true experience of the richness of life; all the good that it brings along with all the bad.

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

References

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  2. Spiegel, M.D., D. and Classen, C., Ph.D. 2000. Group Therapy for cancer Patients. 1st ed. United States of America: Basic Books.
  3. Riis, P. & Smith, S. (2018) Nursing Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer, 1st edn., Switzerland: Springer.
  4. Barnard, A. et al. (2016) ‘Returning to work: The cancer survivor’s transformational journey of adjustment and coping’, International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 11, pp. 10.3402/qhw.v11.32488. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5112348/ (Accessed: 9th September 2019).
  5. LeShan, Ph.D., L. (1994) Cancer As A Turning Point, 2nd edn., United States of America: A Plume Book.
  6. Vrinten, C. et al. (2017) ‘What do people fear about cancer? A systematic review and meta‐synthesis of cancer fears in the general population’, Psychooncology, 26(8), pp. 1070–1079. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573953/ (Accessed: 9th September 2019).
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