The moment that you learn of your own, or a loved one’s, cancer diagnosis is life-changing. The physical challenges of many cancer treatments are immense, however it is the psychological impact that is often less understood, or recognised by others.
Stress, anxiety, anger, fear, depression, grief. Feeling lost, uncertain about the future, or disconnection from others. There are as many responses as there are cancer patients. Most importantly, there are no wrong responses.
A theme I often come across is the efforts of people with cancer to protect those around them – to give them hope. Even though they are possibly going through one of the most difficult times of their lives. This can place an added burden on people with or recovering from cancer, whose physical and emotional capacity is already stretched.
Without question, those caring for people with cancer are doing their best to be supportive. But in some circumstances this can feel like pressure to fill the role of the ‘good’ patient and maintain a positive attitude. People describe feeling an expectation to behave in a certain way, and often this is accompanied by guilt or self-criticism because on the inside, they don’t always feel so brave.
Even the most positive of us can have bad days, when the challenges might feel insurmountable, or fear for the future takes hold. Many cancer treatments can take months, with many more months of recovery time. There will be good days and bad days as part of this.
For those who are in the lives of people with cancer – or indeed those who continue to struggle after their treatment – the most important thing to do is to be there. It’s uncomfortable to realise that you can’t fix it, to sit with what a cancer diagnosis brings and not try to make it better. But sometimes what we all need is acknowledgement that it is just as ok to feel all the nasty emotions as it is to maintain that positive attitude.
For those with or recovering from cancer, it can help to communicate to people what you need – even if you’re not sure exactly what it is. And also to identify what is unhelpful. Finding ways to say to people, “I need you to be here”, “I need you to not be here”, “I need you to listen”, “I need you to let me be scared”, can provide some structure and help everyone feel more in control.
It can also be helpful to talk to someone outside your closest supports. This gives you space to be brutally honest without worrying about the impact it may have on other people. Cancer affects every part of our lives – not just our physical health – and all those parts need nurturing.