A cancer diagnosis for ourselves or someone we care about is undoubtedly an emotional experience. While no two people will share exactly the same emotions in the same order, our feelings can include anger, anxiety, disbelief, fear, grief, overwhelm, stress and worry – all of which can seriously impact our mental health and wellbeing. To help us cope in the tougher times, it’s essential that we prioritise our mental wellbeing alongside our physical health.
It can be helpful to know some of the more common emotional stages of grief we’re likely to experience to some degree when living with cancer. The ‘DABDA’ model, developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, describes five typical stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and is a good tool for understanding what some of our emotional responses might be when we’re faced with a life-changing illness or situation.
When considering the various stages, it’s important to understand that our journeys will be unique to each of us. We may not experience all of the following and they come in no particular order.
Denial – Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming experience, and the overwhelm may trigger feelings of disbelief, numbness, or shock. We may try to avoid thinking about it or pretend it isn’t happening. This is a common response to life-changing events and is entirely normal. Denial tends to fade over time as we begin to experience the other emotional stages.
Anger – Anger is a natural emotional response to perceived threats, and when it comes to a cancer diagnosis, it can be a vital part of the emotional process. It gives us an outlet for the more difficult emotions, like anxiety, fear, frustration, and helplessness, so it’s important that we allow ourselves to feel and express our anger in a healthy way rather than attempting to hold it in. It may be helpful to talk about our anger with a trusted family member or friend, punch pillows, yell out loud when alone in a room or the car, write down how we are feeling in journal, or do some sort of physical activity to ‘let off steam’ and help us process our emotions.
Bargaining – In the bargaining stage, we may feel like our diagnosis is unfair and that we’d do anything to ‘fix’ it and return to life pre-diagnosis. For example, we may bargain with ourselves or what believe to be a higher power as a way of finding some control over the situation, by thinking things like, “If I get through this, I will never complain about anything again.” If a loved one has cancer, we may think, “If they survives this, I’ll never again be angry at them again.”
Bargaining and guilt often go hand in hand, and we may find ourselves going through countless ‘what if’ scenarios, such as: What if I'd never smoked? What if I'd never eaten junk food? What if I'd gone to the doctor six months earlier? If we find ourselves in an endless loop of bargaining, it may be helpful to talk through how we’re feeling with a trusted friend, a counsellor, or in a cancer support group.
Depression – Feeling persistent feelings of sadness, loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, and low energy is very common when receiving a cancer diagnosis. These are normal and natural, but can lead to changes in our sleeping and eating patterns, difficulty concentrating, and a low sense of self-worth. Talk to your healthcare provider if these feelings persist for more than a couple of weeks, because they will be able to offer a variety of supports. They will also be able to recognise if we are experiencing clinical depression; a more-severe form of depression that may require specialist help to cope with.
Acceptance – Once we’ve given ourselves the space to grieve and work through the emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis, it can become a bit easier to face our new reality head-on. This doesn’t mean that we leave behind any difficult feelings or grief, but we learn to accept and find meaning in what we’re experiencing. And with acceptance comes hope. There are often reasons to feel hopeful, with millions of people worldwide having survived cancer, and feeling a sense of hope can help reduce stress, which can have a big effect on our mental wellbeing and feeling like we can cope.
SOME WAYS TO COPE
Although we all cope with our emotions in different ways, these strategies may be helpful.
SOME WAYS TO HELP
If your family member or friend has been diagnosed with cancer, you may be wondering what you can do to help. Here are some ideas:
Ask how they’re feeling and actively listen to what they’re saying. Remember that sometimes they may want to just talk about how they’re feeling, rather than asking for advice or input.
Offer to help
Whether you cook meals, do their laundry, or provide transport to their appointments, helping with day-to-day tasks can be really helpful.
Treat them the same
Your loved one is the same person they were before the diagnosis, and treating them as you have in the past is one way for them to feel like some things in their life haven’t changed.
Give them a break
People often need a break from talking about all things cancer-related. Share interesting stories, some laughs, or watch a favourite movie together.
Learn about cancer
Taking the initiative to learn about your loved one’s cancer type and treatments is one way to show you care, and feeling informed can help you to cope too.
Stay consistent with your relationship - call, message, or take time for visits to let them know how much you care.
Look after yourself
Remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. If you're a caregiver, be sure to set aside time to nurture yourself. Taking care of your own needs can give you the strength you need to continue providing much-needed support.